This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mary 21, 2009 - copyright is an outrage

A friend tells me that the local political party dominating his hometown has a toggle switch: outrage ON. Outrage OFF.

Our experiment today is to see which of these real life library situations flips your switch.

Situation Number One: recently the library bought some new music CDs. One of our staff happened to pop it into a work computer to listen to one of the songs. We don't exactly pay people to listen to music, understand, but sampling a product while cataloging it is perfectly legitimate.

A few moments later, the computer ground to a halt.

After some IT sleuthing, we determined that what happened was this. The CD, legally purchased from Capitol Records for library use (e.g. public lending), installed without any notification at all a "Trojan virus" on the attached computer. "Trojan" simply means that the software was trying to remain hidden. The virus part refers to the attempt to slip past various anti-virus applications and take up residence on the PC.

Once the program was installed, it tried to connect to the Internet and report ... well, we don't know what it was trying to report. Which MP3 files were already on the PC? Information about the disc being used from Capitol? Which anti-virus applications were currently running?

We do know this. The virus disabled the computer, and it required both time and expertise to bring it back up again.

When we called Capitol to ask just what was going on we were told that we had the option to return the disc. But we weren't told what the software was trying to do.

Does anyone think it's a good idea for the library to circulate materials that disable the computers they run on? Or to continue to do business with a publisher who feels free to appropriate or maliciously damage other people's computers?

Outrage ON.

Situation Number Two: last week someone returned to us something really quite remarkable: counterfeit CDs. They had copied the content from the original onto a somewhat cheaper CD. They had done a pretty good job of reproducing the graphic art on the original CD -- including a facsimile of the barcode we attached to it.

We detected the substitution, although it's hard for us to know which user swapped out the original for a fake.

And here's the truth of it. Although most people who borrow library CDs do not take the trouble to replace our content with clever substitutes, it's quite likely that at least some of them do make copies for themselves.

That's not legal, by the way. We loan materials to the public, but the materials remain copyrighted nonetheless. Making a copy of someone else's legally purchased content is theft. It's a crime.

How many people check out library CDs and steal the content? I don't know for sure. Anecdotally, I gather there are quite a few. They seem to feel perfectly justified, too. It's the sort of thing to make a legitimate publisher -- Capitol Records, say -- a little testy.

Outrage OFF?

Not everyone is a thief, of course. I suspect that most people use library materials precisely the way we intend: to sample musical genres, to check out CDs before purchasing them, to broaden their knowledge of both classical and popular culture without having to spend a fortune in the process. Our value as an institution is to leverage the cooperative purchasing power of communities -- not to enable wholesale robbery.

Of course, libraries could simply stop buying anything but books. But then, what about all those perfectly legal, even admirable uses I just described? Should we be forced to abandon our role as an advocate of literacy -- where literacy includes knowledge of many formats and cultural content -- just because a minority of our public is ethically challenged?

Outrage ....?

LaRue's Views are his own.

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