Message: 23
Date: 5.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

A Bill of Writes

Dear Newt,

Your support of the digital age is deeply appreciated. As we move from a world of atoms to one of bits, we need leaders like you explaining that this revolution is a big one, maybe a 10.5 on the Richter scale of social change. Alvin and Heidi Toffler are dandy advisors; good for you for listening to them! The global information infrastructure needs a great deal of bipartisan cooperation, if only to help (read: force) other nations to deregulate and privatize their telecommunications. As you reach out across the world to evangelize the information age, people will listen.

However, there is something specific you could do for the digital revolution in your own congressional backyard, a few hundred feet from the Capitol building - perhaps something that has never been considered. Congress controls the world's largest library - it receives more than 30,000 items per day. Of these, perhaps 8,000 are saved. The Library of Congress is, quite frankly, out of shelf space - even if one includes the overflow cave it shares with Harvard University.

The library, your library, is a giant dumpster full of atoms. Books and other materials check in but almost never check out. But a wonderful largesse inspires this library: to read a book, one need not possess a special Library of Congress card, nor be a citizen of the United States. A person needs only to possess the desire to read. Well, actually, the individual has to be in Washington, DC, must be over 18 years old, and the librarians need to be able to find the thing requested. If mis-shelved, it might as well be lost forever.

Few people ever use the library because, in reality, almost no one can. The library is almost everything but usable, everything but digital. There are more than 100 million items, and virtually none are available in digital form. Recently, the library stuck its toe out onto the Internet, touching millions through exhibits on the World Wide Web. Indeed, last summer it received its first-ever digital books (never mind that no procedures exist for receiving those bits, and essentially no apparatus exists to deal with them).

As you know, almost every book published in the United States during the last 15 years has been produced digitally. Your next book will be, too, but I bet the atoms will still pile up in the depository - not the bits. This problem has not gone unnoticed. The National Science Foundation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Library of Congress are fully aware of the challenge to change those atoms into bits. The government has committed more than US$30 million over four years on digital-library research, including new means to convert, index, and navigate the wealth of bits in the global public library of tomorrow. Jefferson would be proud.

Copyright unbound
But Jefferson did not understand bits. He could not imagine that 1s and 0s would represent information and one day be read (and eventually understood) by machines. All of copyright law is essentially a Gutenberg artifact, bound to paper and construed in ignorance of the digital age.

It will take us years to build digital libraries and longer to retool copyright law. Intellectual property is an extraordinarily complex subject. We are almost clueless about how to handle digital derivative works and digital fair use. In a digital world, the bits are endlessly copyable, infinitely malleable, and they never go out of print. Millions of people can simultaneously read any digital document - and they can also steal it.

So, how do we protect digital information? Our own export laws (a separate issue you may want to consider) stymie encryption shamelessly. The information age is in a bit of a mess when it comes to understanding who may access what, when, how, and under the control of whom.

But don't wait. You control the library that manages United States copyrights. Establish a Bill of Writes immediately. Force us to find solutions, so our children and grandchildren can benefit sooner, rather than later, from being digital.

A digital deposit act
Here is the idea. Pass a Bill of Writes - a digital deposit act - requiring that each item submitted to the Library of Congress be accompanied by its digital source. Make it illegal to obtain copyright otherwise.

Publishers like Knopf and most authors will be concerned about the protection of their bits. The bill must include a bonded escrow agreement so these bits cannot be released without author and publisher approval. Eventually, the Library of Congress could provide bountiful nourishment for the global infrastructure.

Instead of being the "library of last resort," it might become the first place to look. In a richly woven infrastructure, the Library of Congress could be transformed from a depository into a "retrievatory." It would be closer to your desk and closer to the living-room couch than any of the thousands of public library buildings. A Library of Progress could be in the pockets of tomorrow's kids.

Having a Bill of Writes now means that we can spend the next 20 to 50 years hammering out new digital-property laws and international agreements without stunting our future. More importantly, it means that publishers and authors can elect to make their bits available after they decide they have earned enough, and the bits will be ready to go. Without a Bill of Writes, our grandchildren will spend a lot of time digitizing the 70 million items that will be saved by your library over the next 30 years.

The British and the French are building gigantic new buildings to hold more shelves for future atoms. Let our country be the first to write being digital into law.


Your friends at the MIT Media Lab

This column was co-authored with Professor Michael Hawley (mike@media.mit.edu), who holds appointments at MIT in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Media Arts and Sciences.

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