Capture the Commons


Moments such as when Archduke Franz Ferdinand or John F. Kennedy got shot are oft considered so significant a fork in the road that people expend pages imagining alternate histories. I can’t help thinking that today we are at just such a moment. Consider this quote from the New York Times article that appeared as part of the PR campaign around Google’s plan to scan the collections of some of the major libraries.

“Within two decades, most of the world’s knowledge will be digitized and available, one hopes for free reading on the Internet, just as there is free reading in libraries today,” said Michael A. Keller, Stanford University’s head librarian.

Can you see what’s horribly wrong with that sentence?

The steward of one of the worlds richest repositories of human knowledge says “one hopes for free.” In effect he’s saying that no, the deal does not assure that.

I would love to be convinced that these librarians didn’t do what I think they did, but it looks to me like they just sold their collections to Google for cheap. It appears that they taken the public good that they, their predecessors, their donors, and their institutions, all of mankind have labored to create and assemble over the millennium and handed it over into private ownership.

I’m sure that the folks at Google are the nicest people, but that knowledge is mankind’s, and it shouldn’t be a matter of “hope” that it be available for free. If there is one lesson that open source has taught us it’s that it is surprisingly easy to capture a public good by the adding of the smallest bits of technology.

If my fears are well founded then this is a very black day in mankind’s history.

0 thoughts on “Capture the Commons

  1. Ducky Sherwood

    Um. But the material in the libraries isn’t free either. As a member of the general public, I am not allowed to check books out of Stanford’s libraries. I’m not even allowed to enter their main library. If I pay them $500 per year, then I will be allowed to read and check out their books. (Or if I give them tuition of many thousands of dollars per year, I will be able to see and check out their books.) That’s hardly free.

    The US is also quite unusual in its tradition of public libraries. I just heard someone tell me that Ghana has exactly one public library. I’ve heard that in Italy, you pay a fee to join a private library, in the same way that in the US you join Blockbuster or Netflix.

    Finally, I didn’t hear anything that said that the libraries would cease to own the books, so I don’t see how the public (for those libraries that are public) would lose their long-term access to the books the libraries are loaning out.

    I’m not worried.

  2. Rohit Gupta

    1. I agree with Ducky that libraries aren’t free either. I study at a nearby one (in Bombay we have MANY) and paid $10 for six months, which is perfectly feasible, and in fact, it makes sure that such a rich resource is available to me for research.

    2. The librarian is not savvy enough to get it. Replicating content is not buying it off. This is the paradigm shift in electronic documents – stealing does not make the original owner any poorer.

    You may be splitting hair that don’t need splitting. 😉

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