British Library lends itself to intellectual-property wisdom

Just the ticket for DRM decision

Derek Wyatt MP, head of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group, has had an idea. In the search for sanity in digital rights management, he suggests that the British Library leads the inquiry and report back to government.

Rarely has a single suggestion made so much sense. Since antiquity, libraries have embodied the fact that knowledge is worth more than its book value, that access is as important as creation. In every civilisation the creators of libraries are held in special regard — and the destroyers in special contempt.

That high regard for libraries attracts a special breed to tend them. Librarians as a species are the honey bees of information, tireless in collecting their treasure, assiduous in storing it and egalitarian in doling it out. They are also ferocious in its defence; driven by a philosophy of open knowledge, they have little time for special pleading or short-term apologists.

The British Library itself is built on the 200-year-old Library of the British Museum, with its principle of legal deposit — an entitlement to a copy of everything published, for free public access. One can only imagine the screams of protest were such a thing proposed today: nevertheless it is a beneficial and essential part of this country's economy of knowledge.

Another constituent is the Library of the Patent Office, which has been publishing legally protected intellectual property for more than 150 years. Built on the back of the industrial revolution, it is fully aware of the balance to be struck between commercial necessity and public rights — and how the right mix can benefit both sides more than either would gain any other way.

It is hard, then, to think of a more appropriate calling or a more appropriate institution to examine the implications of DRM, which tries not only to impose the most severe of the restrictions that applied to physical media but to impose yet more stringent limitations on top. It is a purely commercial idea that needs to be balanced by higher imperatives.

Decisions made now will affect the way we live and work for decades to come. We need the context, awareness and independence of vision that only a great institution can bring to bear. We very much hope the British Library will accept this challenge, and help set in place the foundations for another two centuries of freedom and growth.

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