« Free thought | Main | Unsocial media »

Phantom tollbooths

This was supposed to be the week that the future of Google Books became clear or at least started to; instead, the court ordered everyone to go away and come up with a new settlement (registration required). The revised settlement is due by November 9; the judge will hear objections probably around the turn of the year.

Instead this turned into the Week of the Postcode, after the Royal Mail issued cease-and-desist letters to the postcode API service Ernest Marples (built by Richard Pope and Open Rights Group advisory council member Harry Metcalfe). Marples' sin: giving away postcode data without a license (PDF).

At heart, the Postcode spat and the Google Books suit are the same issue: information that used to be expensive can now be made available on the Internet for free, and people who make money from the data object.

We all expect books to be copyrighted; but postcodes? When I wrote about it, astonished, in 1993 for Personal Computer World, the spokesperson explained that as an invention of the Royal Mail of course they were the Royal Mail's property (they've now just turned 50). There are two licensed services, the Postcode Address File (automates filling in addresses) and PostZon, the geolocator database useful for Web mashups. The Royal Mail says it's currently reviewing its terms and licensing conditions for PostZon; based on the recent similar exercise for PAF (PDF) we'll guess that the biggest objections to giving it away will come from people who are already paying for it and want to lock out competitors.

There's just a faint hint that postcodes could become a separate business; the Royal Mail does not allow the postcode database and mail delivery to cross-subsidize (to mollify competitors who use the database). Still, Charles Arthur, in the Guardian, estimates that licensing the postcode database costs us more than it makes.

This is the other sense in which postcodes are like Google Books: it costs money to create and maintain the database. But where postcodes are an operational database for the Royal Mail, books may not be for Google Wired UK has shown what happens when Google loses economic interest in a database, in this case Google Groups (aka, the Usenet archive).

But in the analogy Google plays the parts of both the Royal Mail (investing in creating a database from which it hopes to profit) and the geeks seeking to liberate the data (locked-up, out-of-print books, now on the Web! Yeah!). The publishers are merely an intervening toll booth. This is one reason reactions to Google Books have been so mixed and so confusing: everyone's inner author says, "Google will make money. I want some," while their inner geek says, "Wow! That is so *cool*! I want that!".

The second reason everyone's so confused, of course, is that the settlement is 141 pages of dense legalese with 15 appendices, and nobody can stand to read it. (I'm reliably told that the entire basis for handling non-US authors' works is one single word: "If".) This situation is crying out for a wiki where intellectual property lawyers, when they have a moment, can annotate and explain. The American Library Association has bravely managed a two-page summary (PDF).

What's really at stake, as digital library expert Karen Coyle explained to me this week, is orphan works, which could have long ago been handled by legislation if everyone hadn't gotten all wrapped up in the Google Books settlement. Public domain works are public domain (and you will find many of those Google has scanned in quietly available at the Internet Archive, where someone has been diligently uploading them. Works whose authorship is known have authors and publishers to take charge. But orphan works...the settlement would give a Book Rights Registry two-thirds of the money Google pays out to distribute to authors of orphan works. This would be run by the publishers, who I'm sure would put as much effort into finding authors to pay as, as, as...the MPAA@@. It was on this basis that the Department of Justice objected to the settlement.

The current situation with postcodes shows us something very important: when the Royal Mail invented them, 50 years ago, no one had any idea what use they might have outside of more efficiently delivering the mail. In the intervening time, postcodes have enabled the Royal Mail to automate sorting and slim down its work force (while mysteriously always raising postage); but they have also become key data points on which to hang services that have nothing to do with mail but everything to do with location: job seeking, political protest, property search, and quick access to local maps.

Similarly: we do not know what the future might hold for a giant database of books. But the postcode situation reminds us what happens when one or two stakeholders are allowed to own something that has broader uses than they ever imagined. Meanwhile, if you'd like to demand a change in the postcode situation this petition is going like gangbusters.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)