I recently had the great pleasure to take part in a one-day workshop in Barcelona organized by Haidy Geismar and Heather Horst and entitled “The Ethics of Circulation.” The event resulted in a Manifesto in Tweets. The workshop was part of the Academic Book of the Future research collaboration, which is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our talks were informal but we provided abstracts ahead of time. I include mine here:
Anthropologists have of late become especially interested in the built networks or infrastructures that undergird modern societies, encouraging attention to these “architecture[s] for circulation” that hide in plain sight (Larkin 2008; 2013). Less attention has been paid to the infrastructures by which we produce, share, preserve, and circulate knowledge: the institutions, forms, discourses and materialities that support and structure how humans come to know things—and yet such matters are no less infrastructural than the roadways, electrical grids, and water systems. This neglect is unfortunate since, today, infrastructures of knowledge production and dissemination are being reconfigured and cast anew as problems, both inside and outside the academy. My research looks at one particular flashpoint in these broader processes: the mass digitization of books.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a confluence of interest in the US among Internet entrepreneurs, computer engineers, research libraries, and the state wove together two long-standing techno-cultural preoccupations — 1) the possibility that machines could compress recorded information into dynamic and miniaturized libraries, a la Vannevar Bush’s Memex; and, 2) that the limitations of printed books were an obstacle to progress — into a new trope: the digital library. In the early 2000s, projects began in earnest to digitize books on an entirely new scale, seeming to accomplish these long-deferred dreams. Most famously, Google declared in 2004 that it intended to digitize “all books in all languages.” The site of my fieldwork, the Internet Archive, soon thereafter launched—with funding from libraries, foundations, and Google competitors—a public alternative to Google’s private library. Among those involved in the mass digitization of books, I identified a pervasive conviction: that the book is “closed” and needs to be made “open.” Rendered inaccessible by their materiality (their printedness), by the institutions that store and keep them (physical libraries), and by the state’s often misguided regulation (copyright), books are simultaneously cherished and found in need of urgent remediation. Digitizers—technologists, librarians, university administrators, lawyers, advocates—are futurists, adapting the book as they invent libraries of the future.
For my contribution to the Ethics of Circulation workshop, I will discuss mass digitization as a property contest—or, to be more precise, as an extended inquiry into the book as a form of property. In particular, I will discuss one particularly knotty issue within that property contest: the problem of what has become known as “orphan books” (and orphan works, more generally). The term has various meanings but, generally, it indicates the problem that arises when a would-be digitizer—a library, an archive, or a company such as Google—confronts copyrighted works whose owners are not identifiable or locatable. If there is no one to ask permission of, the digitizer faces the decision to use the work without authorization, risking stiff penalties should the owner come forward later, or not to digitize the work at all. The problem is not new: people have long had difficulties finding the owners of copyrighted materials, especially older works. But changes to U.S. copyright law in recent years, especially the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, have greatly exacerbated it. But it was mass book digitization that brought “orphans” to the national (and international) stage in the 2000s.
In my talk, I will discuss (briefly!) how people at the Internet Archive helped to shape the “orphan problem” in three involvements—the Federal lawsuit Kahle v. Gonzalez; in Orphan Works legislation before the US Congress; and in the Google Book Search Settlement. Although each of these efforts failed, and although some legal scholars have called for the abandonment of the orphan metaphor, I argue that it is precisely in its failure at the national level that the orphan metaphor has done its true work. The response to these failures has been a retreat into a “best practices” approach that depends less on legal formality and more on specific, ad hoc, and often experimental approaches to finding appropriate, “respectful” ways to make things part of public, digital archives.
Adrian Johns has recently called the orphan problem “the single most debilitating problem for the entire enterprise of massive open digital libraries.” Although I don’t disagree with that assessment, I also want to see orphans as a productive metaphor of relation. Anthropologists have since the 1990s turned renewed attention to the concept of property, and intensifying contests around property. For good reason, most anthropological attention has been paid to new property objects and new processes of propertization—the patenting of life forms; the privatization of natural resources; the appropriation of indigenous knowledge or traditional cultural expression; and new forms of intellectual property such as computer software. Activism behind “orphans,” in contrast, works through one of the hoariest of commodity forms—the book—in an attempt to temper intellectual property ownership in digital environments. Playing with the long history of the metaphor of the book as child (and the author as its father), activists deploy the metaphor of book as an orphan in order to undo that relation: not to fortify but to diminish the rights of the author-father, and to establish new potential “parents” in place of the neglectful/absent one.
The orphan book problem thus implicitly asks a series of important questions, among them: Who cares in this time and place about these particular cultural artifacts? What other terms and forms of relation might better serve the goals of digital archives than those provided by current copyright? How might the proliferation of new digital archives push us to consider new conceptions of “publicness” and the social relations therein?
UPDATE: This material was later published in 2017 in book form.