In addition to working in IT, I am an amateur historian, which is probably my true passion. I run another blog called Unlearned History which looks at random stories from history that interest me. I am also preparing to produce a blog/podcast that looks at the American Revolution in detail.
My work in these areas is made easier by access to an amazing variety of resources, many of which come from archive.org. Some of the major players in IT, including Microsoft and Google, have spent years digitizing books and other works to make them freely available on the Internet. As a result, I have access to obscure journals, letters, public domain books, and other resources that would have been impossible to access a few years ago without flying all over the country and spending months in various libraries.
Now, I can download all my materials onto my tablet, or store them in the cloud for access whenever I need them. Archive.org does a great job making the documents available in a variety of formats, including text, Kindle, ePub, and my favorite, PDF. Most have an online previewer as well, in case you want to look at the book online without downloading it.
If I were going to add some criticism, it would be that the search engine for the collection is a little frustrating, they often have multiple copies of the same work, and multi-volume works do not always list the volume number in the title. But the amount of access, all available for free, makes me feel guilty for leveling any criticism at all. The site is a treasure trove to anyone interested in history.
Archive.org does more than simply provide historical texts. It also keeps archived copies of web sites, stores hold movies and audio, and even has an extensive photographic collection of museum pieces and other things.
The big limitation, of course, is copyright. The site cannot provide access to copyrighted works. Here, I guess lies the basis for my rant today. Pretty much anything written before 1923 is in the public domain. Some later works are as well, if they were not properly registered or renewed. But for the most part, 1923 is the cut-off point. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a law extending corporate copyrights from 75 years to 95 years. Anything already in the public domain (1922 and earlier) remained so. Anything about to expire, got held in protection until 2019, when the works will (hopefully) begin to fall into the public domain again.
I say "hopefully" because there are efforts to extend copyrights even further. The primary player in extending copyrights is the Disney Corporation. Disney's oldest cartoon, Steamboat Willie, dates back to 1928. If Disney had not gotten Congress to extend the copyright, we could all be watching Steamboat Willie for free on archive.org or a thousand other sites. We could also enjoy Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and later this year, Dumbo. Disney is particularly apoplectic that consumers might enjoy their old library of cartoons and movies with out kicking back some cash.
There is certainly a need for copyright. We want to encourage authors, musicians, and producers to make new works, secure in the knowledge that the day they are released, others won't simply copy them and start selling them in competition. For this reason, they are given a legitimate monopoly on the sale of the work they created, or purchased from the author, for a limited time.
The key is "a limited time". At some point, the works need to become available to the public, Copyright hampers access to many works. Often, the original owner of the work cannot be found or does not care about limits or royalties anymore. Legacy copyrights prevent many works from the early and mid-20th Century from being made available to researchers or even to people who just want to enjoy older works.
The question then, is how long is reasonable for a copyright? Disney argues that the longer terms provide greater value and therefore more incentive to create new works. That argument is nonsense with regard to extending existing copyrights. When Walt Disney made Steamboat Willie or Snow White, he had a copyright of 26 years, with another 26 year extension possible. Disney obviously had enough incentive with those copyright terms. Extending them did nothing to encourage him retroactively.
People used this reasoning to challenge the copyright extensions in court. Sadly, the Supreme Court upheld the law in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003). The Court held that it was within Congress' authority to extend the copyright term as long as they did not make it forever. The Court also said the retroactive increase was reasonable just to keep all terms the same length. The second part of that ruling especially makes no sense to me. Copyright has very significant First Amendment implications, since it prevents people from making use of a great deal of information. As I already pointed out, extending the term retroactively has zero impact on the incentive to create a new work. The Court should have used heightened scrutiny to look at the First Amendment implications of copyright protections and recognized that retroactive extension was not tailored to any valid state interest. But the Court did not and we are stuck with what we've got.
There are rumblings that Disney may try to extend the copyright once again. There are attempts to extend copyright internationally through the much criticized Trans Pacific Partnership treaty. There will likely be other attempts coming soon. Hopefully, such attempts will fail.
Copyright law has headed in the wrong direction in many other ways. Until relatively recently, anyone creating a new work had to register it for copyright protection. Today, however, everything created is automatically copyrighted without having to do anything. This means that even works from people who don't really care about copies are protected. Affirmatively telling people a work is in the public domain is still fairly uncommon.
Also, copyright holders used to have to expend resources protecting their rights. Copyright violations were not criminal matters. Owners had to seek out and sue violators for civil damages. If they did not bother to do so within a reasonable time, the courts would declare the work to be in the public domain. Today, a copyright holder need not do anything. The federal government enforces copyrights through criminal enforcement, with civil suits also still available. An author need not do anything to protect this copyrighted works though. The government will do it for him.
Right now archive.org gives me amazing access to resources up until 1922. My library has pretty good coverage of books going back to about the 1970s. Anything in that missing 50 years is much more difficult to obtain. I might be able to find some used books available for sale from that era, but more likely those works will simply get ignored.
With all the potential that is out there to make information available to the world, copyright should not stand in the way. Copyright has great value in creating incentive for new works. That right, however, must be limited so that the public can eventually enjoy those works without unnecessary restriction.