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Bringing CanCon to the World

Law professor Michael Geist is making the case for a Canadian digital library

Imagine being able to read any Canadian book, government report or legal decision from anywhere in the world, without spending a dime – or even moving away from your laptop. As unlikely as it might sound, that’s just what law professor Michael Geist has in mind.

Creating a national digital library is one of the ideas Geist suggested while making his case to overhaul Canadian copyright law in the Hart House lecture Our Own Creative Land: Cultural Monopoly and the Trouble with Copyright, in March. Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, explained his vision of culture and copyright in Canada – one that focuses less on finding ways to keep foreign content out of the country (increasingly impossible in an interconnected world, he believes) and more on finding new ways to use digital media and the Internet to bring Canadian culture to other countries.

Geist’s idea for a free, widely accessible digital library was inspired by the Google Book Search project, launched by the search engine company in 2004 to digitize books and post them in its online search results. Functionally, Geist’s national digital library would work the same way as the Google project, except Ottawa would fund it and digitize every Canadian book ever published, including holdings in English and French and aboriginal and heritage languages.

Such an undertaking would make Canada the first country to create a national digital public library, bringing significant worldwide media attention to the works and the writers. “From a cultural perspective, the library would provide an exceptional vehicle for promoting Canadian creativity to the world, leading to greater awareness of Canadian literature, science and history,” says Geist. “By extending the library to government documents and court decisions, it would help meet the broader societal goal of providing all Canadians with open access to their laws and government policies.”

In terms of copyright, readers would gain complete access to the thousands of books in the public domain. For books that remain subject to copyright, Canadians would have access to only small excerpts. “This policy would be consistent with principles of fair dealing under copyright law.”

The cost of such a venture is steep. Geist estimates that scanning more than 10 million Canadian books and documents would take five years and cost about $100 million. “[But] if Canada fails to move quickly on this initiative, it may find itself seeking to catch up to European countries, which plan to digitize six million books by 2010.”

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