December 10, 2022

Digital Public Library of America: Pro and Con

Conference at Columbia brings together opposing players in the drive for a true digital public library

By Francine Fialkoff, LJ Editor-in-Chief

Digital Public Library of America logoThey are miles apart in their thinking about digital books, but the Association of American Publishers’ (AAP) president, Tom Allen, and Harvard University library director Robert Darnton came face to face to discuss the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) on October 11. The occasion was a forum organized by Maurice J. Freedman, publisher of The Unabashed Librarian, and hosted by James Neal, University Librarian at Columbia. Also on hand was the University of California, Berkeley’s Pamela Samuelson, an expert on copyright law.

Neal kicked the meeting off by calling for “primal innovation” to solve a series of issues, among them the “collective” collection, the drive to open up knowledge, and the need for digital preservation. DPLA is one of several groups, like HathiTrust and OCLC, working along these lines and in a complimentary way, he said.

A distinguished professor and prolific author on French history, Darnton has been a major force behind the DPLA. He harkened back to the Jeffersonian ideal of access to knowledge and the public good. Instead, he said, we have “overcommercialization of the public sector of culture.”

In that vein, “Google Book Search is the story of a good idea gone bad,” he said. Google could have made a case for fair use, thus scoring points for the public good (though later on Darnton said that given the makeup of Congress, there is no guarantee it would support the public good). Instead Google chose a “closed path of commercialization,” which he compared to that of journal publishers like Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell, which have a stranglehold on scientific, technical, and medical publishing and reap obscene profits.

Where Google failed, the DPLA can succeed, Darnton said. It can draw on a huge database of already digitized material from HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, research libraries (Harvard has digitized and made available 2.3 million titles), and state libraries. Darnton suggested starting with these special collections and titles in the public domain, leaving out current materials and orphan works (in-copyright titles titles for whom copyright holders cannot be found). That seems to belie his statement that DPLA “will serve all spectrums of society…from pre-K on up.” In fact, one criticism of the DPLA is that because it will not include current popular books, it cannot serve public library users.

A prototype for the DPLA will be chosen in April 2012, with the aim of launching in April 2013, Darnton said.

Responding to Darnton, Allen said “we love librarians for all they do to support books,” but we must find a way to “maintain what I call the creative ecosystem,” which recompenses publishers and authors for their output—and copyright is its “life blood.” He pointed to the proliferation of ereading in higher ed, for which publishers have invested millions of development dollars. If publishers don’t get paid for these titles, he said, they “would vanish.”

Allen, too, was skeptical about how the DPLA will serve public libraries, unless it includes not just public domain but also orphan works, in copyright out-of-print titles, or current commercial titles. “What’s really going to be in this collection?” he queried.

Despite their disparate views, Darnton looked for common ground. Referring to 20th century books, Darnton dismissed the idea that there’s a lot of money to be made by authors in the long tail. He suggested an escrow fund to compensate authors, and also asked whether authors might be mobilized to contribute their copyrights for free. Allen countered that as long as it’s the choice of the rights holder, it’s fine. But, he said, “Publishers and authors get nervous if they think something is being taken from them without their consent.”

Samuelson, who has been a vocal opponent of the Google Books Settlement, reinforced the idea of sticking with public domain titles for the DPLA. Nevertheless, she said, she hoped the DPLA would have a role in solving the problem of orphan works. One such solution is the Extended Collective Licenses, which the European Union and Canada are moving toward. Basically, an organization that represents rights holders of a particular sector negotiates for all works across a particular type and not just author by author. Money for orphan works is deposited in escrow and paid out if the rights holder is discovered—whether or not the author or rights holder is the member of that particular organization or not.

She also pointed to Golan v. Holder, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which challenges the constitutionality of the copyright extension laws passed by Congress in 1998.  If this case wins, it will make many more works part of the public domain.

In conclusion, she said that we must find a way to move forward. “The chance to do something magnificent is present.”



  1. […] From Francine Fialkoff’s article on The Digital Shift, Digital Public Library of America: Pro and Con […]

  2. […] Of interest, too: Library Journal’s David Rapp on the DPLA meeting, as well as LJ Editor Francine Fialkoff’s account of a DPLA-related meeting at Columbia University (not an off…). […]