Monthly Archives: June 2018

False Positives, Real Problem – The Limits of Filtering as a Solution to Copyright Infringement

The question of how to deal with technological change lies behind much debate around copyright at the moment. While copying and distributing works used to require investment-heavy equipment, now anyone can do it, making it undoubtedly easier to pirate films, songs and music.

Concern about piracy is often linked with criticism of the major Internet platforms which allow for users to upload and share content. It may help that they are usually easier to find, and have deeper pockets, if ever there is to be compensation or a settlement.

While the link between the biggest platforms and piracy is not as clear as some make out, it is understandable that the wealth and profit margins of the biggest platforms can lead many to a feeling that something is wrong. Nonetheless, there is a difference between using a work legally but not paying enough, and not using it legally in the first place.

The Answer Depends on the Question

In terms of responses, these tend to depend on the framing of the problem. If the issue is market power (i.e. that rightholders are too dependent on the power of the platform to be able to negotiate), then the answer is competition law. If it’s that major platforms are using their global presence to avoid tax, then the answer is better international coordination and cooperation to stop this.

But then there are those who portray things in terms of major tech companies making money from advertising around pirated content. Ironically, their response to a situation ‘created’ by technology seems to be more technology.

To use ‘filters’ trained with artificial intelligence to recognise copyrighted works, and stop them being uploaded. Or, if a platform refuses to use them, legal action. This is the position promoted by some in the ongoing European Union copyright discussions.

There is a human rights argument against such an approach – primarily that expression on the internet via platforms should not be conditional on a prior check. There is no truly free expression under such a system, just as there wasn’t in the past in authoritarian regimes that steamed open letters to read them before they arrived at their destination. See IFLA’s response to the call for comments by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for more on this.

Tech for Bad, Tech for Worse?

The technological issues tend to compound the human rights ones. This is because, while progress is being made on developing artificial intelligence that can recognise copyrighted works, there seems to have been a general disregard for their ability to replicate the balance that exists in law, at least where there are exceptions and limitations.

The evidence that tools deployed are able to identify legitimate uses under exceptions and limitations to copyright, for example satire, criticism, incidental use or broader fair use is limited.

To use language from medical research, the number of false negatives (occasions when a filter misses an infringing use) may be low. But this is not the same as ensuring a low number of false positives, where a filter wrongly identifies a legitimate use as infringing (see examples in this article).

Moreover, the incentive to reduce this number of false positives will not be high when there no price to pay for preventing legal uploads, but the costs associated with false negatives are significant. Of course this is not a concern if the goal is to stop infringing content making it to the Internet, regardless of the collateral damage done. For those who do worry about this, notice and take-down appears to offer a better way forwards, at least for now.

The Library Dimension

For libraries, there is an immediate risk to those who encourage users to be creative and upload their work to platforms. Those operating repositories – for example Open Access repositories or collections of open educational resources, as well as sites such as Wikipedia – could well find themselves obliged to apply such (faulty) filters.

More broadly, the application of filters without consideration of their impact on exceptions and limitations to copyright, or freedom of speech in general, runs counter to library values.

Be Cautious, not Cavalier

So filters should not be the subject of misplaced faith, but rather of caution. This isn’t the only case of course – blockchain too risks undermining the operation of exceptions and limitations, as well as of anonymity. Perhaps one day technology will improve, but until then, we should beware of miracle cures, and not lose sight of key ethical and human rights principles around freedom of expression.

9 June – International Archives Day

Today archives are being celebrated around the globe. With many libraries hosting archives, and carrying out archival activities, this is an opportunity to recognise the importance of archivists, in whatever type of institution they work.

IFLA therefore congratulates not only all the great national archives, but also all the local and independent community archives run by volunteers. Because the importance of keeping a record of the present for the benefit of the future is not only important at the level of governments or major companies.

At the local level, archives can help build a sense of local identity and pride, of roots with the past. Community archives act as a “place of preservation” and are brought together by people sharing an interest in finding out about their community and how it developed. They can be of significant importance to social historians and others trying to understand the factors that shape people’s lives.

For example, the Canvey Island Archive is run by people from Canvey Island who took it upon themselves to gather memories, for example by copying photographs and other documents that relate to the history of the Island.

In the United States, archivists worked closely with the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, in order to document the stories of the unrest that shook the town and country. This work is already helping in the process of understanding what happened, and supporting the healing process.

Community archives preserve the past and often create awareness, interest and activity in the wider community. What is so unique about the archives is that they allow groups of people who are often unrepresented or overlooked in their society to identify, explore and celebrate their community and their cultural heritage.

That’s definitely worth celebrating!

7th Session of the General Assembly of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

On 4 June 2018, IFLA attended the opening sessions of the General Assembly to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at the UNESCO HQ in Paris, France along with decision makers, NGOs and other stakeholders from the cultural heritage field.

When explaining IFLA’s work on cultural heritage issues and libraries, the most common thing that people seem to think of is ancient manuscripts and old books. Manuscripts and books are easy to relate to, and most people understand the need to preserve them in order to preserve our history.

It is harder though when explaining the need for safeguarding and preservation of intangible cultural heritage, because what is it really, why protect living heritage and what can libraries do?

Before going to Paris, it felt necessary to do some homework, to get to grips with intangible cultural heritage and the role of libraries, to be able to answer those questions, as well as convince others.

What exactly is Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) can be defined as the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities or groups recognizes as part of their cultural heritage. This could be knowledge about the environment, a dance, music or even cooking.

As the name suggests, it can’t be touched, so it’s not books, records, sculptures or paintings. But this doesn’t make it any less important to people in their daily lives. Unlike more ‘formal’ culture, it is not necessarily so easy to collect and preserve for the future. Too often, it is not even regarded as culture, meaning that it risks being neglected.

In 2003 UNESCO therefore adopted a new international convention: the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The aim of this Convention is to secure a sustainable future for practices, traditions, skills and rituals passed down over generations. The Convention has been recognised around the world and 177 countries have ratified it in just 15 years!

Why protect living heritage?

UNESCO has noted that ICH is extremely vulnerable, and there are unfortunately many examples of intangible cultural heritage at risk, or even already lost. ICH has been threatened by globalisation, commercialisation and individualisation, and UNESCO as well as many NGOs and other organisations are eager to ensure that ICH and cultural diversity are safeguarded around the globe.

What can libraries do?

Generally, initiatives for safeguarding ICH include identification and documentation. Indeed, this may often be the first step in the process – the development of records, or an inventory. This is a natural strength of libraries.

So one of the best ways of understanding the role of libraries is by showcasing some of the great examples of collections from around the world. Libraries can make people and their heritage visible and help them pass it on to future generations.

Like the National Library of Sri Lanka whose ICH collection includes Sinhalese folklore, tales, legends, customs and ceremonies and other parts of the culture that can be recorded, but not touched.

Or the National Library of Australia which has pledged to enrich the cultural life of Australia by collecting, preserving and protecting records of the oral history with interviews, records of music and environmental sounds.

Or CERDOTOLA in Cameroun which has programmes focusing on preserving African languages, arts and food.

The list is long, these libraries are just a few of many who contributes to the safeguarding and preservation of ICH. All are also members of IFLA’s network of Preservation and Conservation Centres.

Governments should be supporting libraries in this work!

The Convention itself requires Member States to establish documentation institutions for ICH and facilitating access to them (Article 13). This is an important point for the library community, which can draw on government commitments in advocacy work.

In the General Assembly, several Member States highlighted the importance of capacity building and getting experts and NGOs involved. The Secretariat of the Convention in turn stated that good safeguarding practices needs to be highlighted, and a working group under the Secretariat is creating a survey to be send to thousands of organisations to help them understand how intangible cultural heritage can best be safeguarded and preserved.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for this survey, as it is clear that libraries can take an active role in this, contributing to safeguarding and preserving the world’s intangible cultural heritage and fostering cultural and creative diversity and social cohesion.



Sharing is Saving: Libraries Mark World Environment Day

We cannot take a healthy environment for granted. Perhaps the single greatest determinant of the future of humanity is our ability to preserve the world around us. Given that we share this environment, it makes sense to share the effort to find a solution. For libraries, are already used to sharing, this comes naturally.

So to celebrate World Environment Day 2018, this blog provides an opportunity to look at how the sort of sharing that takes place in libraries helps protect the environment.

Shared Goods

Starting with the basics, libraries are of course an early manifestation of the sharing economy. Admittedly, the first libraries were not necessarily about saving the planet, but about ensuring that the high price of books would not mean that they were out of the reach of students, researchers and citizens in general. There remains the positive side-effect however – less use of materials, and so less environmental impact.

The model of buying books to lend out to a number of users has been replicated with other items – tools, wifi routers, even seeds. And in this, libraries certainly are both helping to reduce consumption of materials, and saving money and effort for readers (or users).


Shared Information

Clearly libraries also share information with their users. Even though everything doubtless is available online, the importance of physical spaces (especially for families or disadvantaged groups) as a place to discover and learn has not diminished.

Libraries are heavily involved in promoting sustainable living among users – there is even a whole session on this at the World Library and Information Congress – and even in setting an example (see the example of Greenpoint library in Brooklyn). They are, potentially, an excellent shop window for efforts to promote better ways of eating, building and living.


Shared Infrastructure

Finally, there is sharing between libraries – the unmatched global network of institutions which forms the backbone of research and innovation.

As highlighted in last year’s Development and Access to Information report, the importance of this network, ensuring that information can pass between centres of research excellence, as well as to people on the ground, is growing. We cannot afford to replicate research, or have an incomplete understanding of what is going on.

By working together, libraries therefore support both monitoring of our world, and research initiatives to find solutions.


Happy World Environment Day!

eBooks vs Physical Books: the Importance of Choice

Choice, not conflict: why libraries need both physical, and eBooks, to deliver their missionseBooks are often portrayed as being in conflict with physical books – the modern versus the traditional, function versus experience, and (more or less openly) Amazon versus bookstores and established publishers.


Sales figures are regularly analysed for the relative trends. Partisans of physical books cite numbers from the big publishers, which tend to show increased sales of hardcopies making up for a fall in eBook sales.


Amazon’s tax practices, and recent stories about fake eBooks on the site potentially being used for money laundering have provided further ammunition for those who seek to paint eBooks as a ‘bad thing’. Others point out that once independent eBook publishing (much of which runs through Amazon) is included, the eBook market looks a lot healthier (see also this Quartz piece).


A recent study (paywalled) from the University of Arizona, based on focus group studies, provides interesting insights looks at user experiences and attitudes towards eBooks, aiming to establish at the micro level (rather than the macro, whole-of-market level) what may underpin consumers’ behaviour.


To Have and Not to Hold?


A key finding from the article concerns the difference in people’s feelings about owning digital and physical books, or rather that there is a much stronger sense of ownership of physical objects. It underlines that reading an eBook feels more like ‘renting’ than buying, more like a service than a good.


For the respondents, much of this was linked to subjective responses. Holding an object in your hands does create a greater sense of connection, and the study makes a lot of the touch, feel and smell of a physical book. The importance of memories of children’s books, for example, also plays a role.


But it also cites legal issues. Of course it is true that digital works are services, which are licenced rather than bought. Increasingly, works are held on third-party servers, and readers’ devices hold no more than a temporary copy. Digital materials are licenced, rather than bought.


Yet the fact that contracts and technological measures affect what users can do is also at the fore, with the impossibility to lend, give or sell books to friends and others meaning that eBooks feel less valuable. Certainly for libraries, the tough (and often confusing) restrictions around eLending consume considerable time and effort.


There is nothing subjective about this – it is something decided by publishers of eBooks (be they an independent writer working through Amazon or a traditional bookseller). And so it is something that can be changed.


Competitor or Complement?


The article suggests that there are two ways forwards for eBook publishers – either to accept that eBooks are different, and to make more of the possibilities offered by digital (i.e. multimedia), or to try and make eBooks more like physical books.


In a (controversial) interview on the subject, Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry described eBooks as a ‘stupid format’, and effectively argues for the first option – bringing eBooks closer to other multimedia experiences. This may well provide a response to the ‘attention wars’ which seem to be pitching different forms of entertainment against each other – who gets the biggest share of people’s free time?


As for the second option, the study suggests further physical adaptations of e-readers, or the possibility to scribble notes in the margin as changes that could help. What the study doesn’t mention (at least in the available press materials) is that maybe more could done at least to tackle the legal constraints on eBooks, not least in order to make it easier for libraries to lend books.


Of course it doesn’t necessarily need to be a binary choice.


As the study shows, current eBook formats do seem to work for people who simply need the basic functionality of the digital product (lighter, compatibility with DAISY readers, possibility to magnify text), and do not necessarily need or want multimedia.


Moreover, they also have proved valuable for non-traditional publishers. A shift to ‘richer’ formats may imply greater costs, which would reverse the trend towards reducing the costs of such independent/self-publishing, harming diversity. Clearly improving licence terms would make this access easier, and potentially more valuable to buyers.


It is also the case that people’s preferences will vary according to their personal situations, what they are reading, the time of day, and other factors. Given libraries’ focus on best responding to readers’ needs, being able to lend books in whatever format works best for readers, in all their diversity, is the key.


For libraries, therefore, the idea of a competition between eBooks and physical books is perhaps unhelpful. Choices as to formats should be made by readers, not by libraries or suppliers as far as possible. Libraries and suppliers, together, can do best by readers by making this choice as real and easy as possible.