When the new president, if she is Hillary Clinton, moves into the White House, will she unpack her library in the spirit of Walter Benjamin—releasing memories of adventures attached to books? Not likely. Will she think of books and libraries at all? Probably not. She has more important things to do. But the arrival of a new president at this moment, not long after the dawn of the digital age, could open an opportunity to reorient literature and learning in a way that was envisioned by the Founders of our country, one that would bring books within the reach of the entire citizenry.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The Copyright Act of 1790, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning,” fixed that time limit at fourteen years, renewable once. In creating copyright, the Founders intended to promote a public good, the advancement of learning, while leaving room for private interest—a temporary monopoly on the sale of books.
What are the proportions of the public and the private interests in the world of books today? The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, because the copyright on Mickey was soon to expire) extended copyright to the life of the author plus seventy years—that is, more than a century in most cases. The vast majority of books published in the twentieth century remain excluded from the public domain.
Copyright is but one example of how the republic has veered off the course set by the Founders. They expected the printing press and the postal service to maintain civic health by spreading information and knowledge. The Internet offers much greater possibilities, yet “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” has been thwarted by commercial corporations, which dam up and drain off knowledge into private profit centers.
Fortunately, when the new president settles in, a new leader will have taken charge of the world’s greatest library, located only 2.2 miles from the White House. Carla Hayden, who was sworn in as librarian of Congress on September 14, demonstrated her commitment to the public good during her tenure as director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. She extended the library’s services to the underprivileged sectors of Baltimore, kept the libraries open when Baltimore exploded in protest after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, and defended the privacy of readers against the threat of…
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