September 18, 2002

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techsploitation
by annalee newitz

Public domain

THERE WAS SOMETHING so relentlessly cartoony about the television coverage this Sept. 11. Each cable channel put its own targeted spin on the thing, with satirical terrorist specials on Comedy Central and patriotic collectibles being hawked on QVC and various crappy insta-documentaries on the History Channel and A&E. I couldn't tell if Sept. 11 was being treated as some kind of demented celebration or maybe a collective historical reenactment like one of those fake Civil War battles they do every year in Virginia. I flipped on CNN only to see a legend at the side of the screen that read, "Terror alert: high." Some hack in the graphics department had tweaked the weather alert icon to reflect Our National Day of Terrorist Consciousness.

So, in a symbolic act possibly as useless and doomed as the symbolic acts it was intended to critique, I turned off my TV and celebrated freedom.

I began by talking with Lauren Gelman about a new project she's working on with the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). The Internet Archive volunteers have put about 9,000 public domain books on its site, and now they're driving around the United States in a high-tech bookmobile where people can link to the archive via satellite, download the book of their choice, print it out, and take it home to read. And yes, it's all free. The Internet Archive bookmobile will make its first visit to an East Palo Alto school Sept. 30 and will stop at numerous other schools, libraries, and nursing homes during its cross-country trek. "We want to remind people that when things like books enter the public domain, they become a major public good and a public utility," Gelman says.

More to the point, the bookmobile plans to motor into Washington, D.C., Oct. 8, the day before the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a crucial copyright case that Gelman says will decide how many books are part of the bookmobile's digital library. Gelman explains that although the founders of the United States originally mandated that copyright protection should last only 14 years, with a possible renewal for an additional 14, copyright today is for the author's entire life plus 70 years. Eldred v. Ashcroft is "a challenge to a law that extended copyright by another 20 years [to 70 from 50]," she says.

The fate of the bookmobile's collection reminds us that people in the United States still need to fight to preserve the public domain, where anyone can access ideas for free. "Copyright should last long enough that authors are compensated and people's creativity is encouraged," Gelman says. "But with current copyright laws, ideas are too easily locked down." The public domain is a place for artists, writers, and other copyright holders to give back to the public after the public has compensated them for their work. If you don't catch the bookmobile, you can download the books from the Internet Archive or from other public domain book sites such as Project Gutenberg (www.promo.net/pg) or the English Server (www.eserver.org).

If you want to contribute to the domain of public knowledge and can't wait another minute, you can spend hours, weeks, or years participating in the fast-growing Wikipedia community (www.wikipedia.com). Wikipedia is a group of thousands of people who use WikiWiki, software that allows visitors at a Web site to update it dynamically to build and edit a giant online encyclopedia. The Wikipedia site contains information on everything from algebra to the history of homosexuality, and anyone can add to or revise entries to make it better. Amazingly, this has resulted in one of the most brain-enriching documents I've ever used on the Web. The contributors have worked to maintain a genuinely high standard of accurate information, although there are occasional jokes or bits of absurdity.

And if you want a taste of what the public sphere in the United States could become if we let corporations limit our access to knowledge in the name of profit, check out an interesting site prepared by Ben Edelman, who works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

He's been following up on reports that when Chinese citizens type "google" into their browsers, the Great Firewall of China redirects them to a different site whose search results are deemed appropriate. He's detailed how this works, including some weird screenshots at cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/google-replacements. Many U.S. citizens think that this kind of censorship-via-redirection only happens in strongly state-controlled countries like China. But it's likely that the corporate ownership of broadband in the United States will result in a similar situation. AT&T might make a deal with Bob's Search Engine in which anyone typing "google" into their browser would be redirected to Bob's. Or someone looking for Powell's Books might get redirected to Barnes and Noble. Ah, the joys of unchecked capitalism. Almost as good as unchecked state power.

Annalee Newitz (punting@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who needs to see more explosions. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.