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Experts call for a national e-archive
Report explores intellectual property policy in an online age
By Alan Boyle
Nov. 3 — Policy-makers should create a new system of “electronic depositories” to preserve digital information for posterity, America’s top research council says in a new report. The National Research Council’s recommendation is contained in a survey of the challenges surrounding intellectual property rights in an online age.

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Alan Boyle

       THE CALL for an electronic depository system — essentially a digital analogue to the Library of Congress — was among the most specific recommendations contained in the report, titled “The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age.” Although such a system has not been a legislative priority in the past, the report’s recommendation will be taken seriously, a congressional chief of staff told MSNBC.
       “Right now, we have depositories for hard volumes — papers, books, records, everything you can actually hold in your hands — but we don’t have any kinds of depositories for bits and bytes. I think that’s something that Congress will have to look at in the future,” said Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property.
       Electronic archiving on a mass scale raises a host of questions: Will copyright-holders grant permission for archiving, and under what conditions? What’s the most reliable medium for long-term data storage? Out of the terabytes of data online, how much should be stored? Who pays the bill?
       The report says a task force should be chartered to resolve such questions within two years. In addition, Congress should enact legislation to permit the copying of digital information for archival purposes, “whether the copy is in the same format or migrated to a new format,” the report says.
       Electronic archives should not open the door for no-holds-barred distribution of digital information, the report says.

       “As long as the material was available at a publisher’s Web site ... then, aside from on-site use at the depository, it wouldn’t be available for access to anyone else,” said Karen Hunter, senior vice president at Elsevier Science and a member of the committee that wrote the report.
       Rather, the depository would serve “as a safeguard and also as a level of providing trust to the community” — a guarantee that the information would survive even if the original source fizzles out.
       Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, said there should be multiple depositories in different countries, “because who knows what government policies may turn up in the future?”
       Like on-paper libraries, e-archives on multiple platforms just might put digital works beyond the reach of computer glitches, authors with second thoughts, publishers who go out of business (or run out of data storage space), repressive regimes and even the kind of conflagration said to have devastated the fabled Library of Alexandria.
       “People have spent two millennia writing about what a tragedy that was,” Lynch said.
       “The character of preserving cultural heritage is such that you never recognize disasters when they’re happening,” he said, “you only recognize them in hindsight.”
       The call for legislation on electronic archiving stood out in a report that generally urged a go-slow approach to intellectual-property protection in the online environment.
       “The Digital Dilemma” was written by a committee of the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The council’s mission is to provide independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter.

       Among the committee members were experts on intellectual property from academic institutions, publishers and writers, corporate researchers and executives from media heavyweights such as Time Warner and Freedom Communications.
       The 240-page report, funded by the National Science Foundation, represents an in-depth analysis of the well-known conflict between two truisms in an age when more and more information is rapidly and easily transmitted over the Internet: “Information wants to be free” and “Information-providers want to be paid.”
       “The question of how to control distribution and use of digital information is much more than a legal issue alone,” said Randall Davis, the committee’s chairman and a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
       “Anyone with an interest in e-commerce will feel the consequences of the decisions made on this topic,” Davis said in a written statement. “A broad framework is needed to address all aspects of the public and private interest and to ensure the future vitality of the Internet economy.”
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       Some have called for tighter controls on the electronic transmission of copyrighted information, fearing that the whole concept of copyright is under threat. If computer users can easily copy, paste and distribute whole books, songs and other works of art, there would be little economic incentive for the creators of such works.
       The new report, however, counsels caution: “Legislators should not contemplate an overhaul of intellectual property laws and public policy at this time, to permit the evolutionary process ... time to play out,” it says.
       The report notes that many of the basic concepts underpinning intellectual property — such as “fair use,” publishing and even the definition of a copy — are being called into question because of the way the digital world works.
       For example, the idea of “licensing” digital creations, whether they be computer operating systems or online books, allows content producers to substitute contract law for copyright law. If this trend continues, it could shift the balance of private ownership and public access associated with copyright, the report says.
       Intellectual-property policy is also being shaped by technological developments — such as sophisticated encryption schemes to keep digitally distributed music and video from being passed around freely over the Internet. Such developments have the power to change the digital landscape, but they’re “not a panacea” for every policy problem, the report says.
       A key issue in the digital debate relates to private, noncommercial copying of copyrighted material — for example, redistributing a scientific study, the latest installment of a comic strip or an MSNBC article to your colleagues. The report acknowledges that less leeway may be given to this type of “fair use” as the digital world develops. But it cautions that the public interest in free access to information shouldn’t be overlooked.
       McDonald agreed that changes in intellectual property policy should be handled carefully.
       “Some of these things seem like good ideas on the surface, but when you get into these things, they raise red flags that people haven’t thought of before,” he said.
       McDonald noted that Coble’s support for database-protection legislation has generated controversy in the past.
       “Universities have fair use for copyrightable materials, and they’re afraid that if our database legislation goes through and it gives people proprietary rights to databases, they won’t have access in the future,” he said.
       That particular fear was unwarranted, McDonald said, but he acknowledged that “in some cases they may have to pay for some of the stuff that they’ve gotten for free in the past.”
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