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Ancient Books Go Online 198

Posted by timothy
from the on-the-internet-no-one-knows-you're-a-clay-tablet dept.
jd writes "The BBC is reporting that the United Nations' World Digital Library has gone online with an initial offering of 1,200 ancient manuscripts, parchments and documents. To no great surprise, Europe comes in first with 380 items. South America comes in second with 320, with a very distant third place being given to the Middle East at a paltry 157 texts. This is only the initial round, so the leader board can be expected to change. There are, for example, a lot of Sumerian and Babylonian tablets, many of which are already online elsewhere. Astonishingly, the collection is covered by numerous copyright laws, according to the legal page. Use of material from a given country is subject to whatever restrictions that country places, in addition to any local and international copyright laws. With some of the contributions being over 8,000 years old, this has to be the longest copyright extension ever offered. There is nothing on whether the original artists get royalties, however."
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Ancient Books Go Online

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  • Sounds about right (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @01:46AM (#27671545)
    Copyright seems to have an indefinite life these days...
    • If Gozer isn't compensated for his copyright on those Sumerian texts, many librarians will know what it is like to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar, I can tell you!
      • That was too funny. Mod parent hilarious! Best GhostBusters reference I've heard in a decade. My hat (if I wore one) is off to you, sir.
    • I assume the copyright is on the specific *scan* of the item, not on the original item. You'd be free to transcribe the text depicted.

    • by jc42 (318812) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @02:17PM (#27677089) Homepage Journal

      Copyright seems to have an indefinite life these days...

      True, but this isn't really anything new. A few centuries back, before modern printing presses and before the fiction that copyright is to encourage creators, it was common for rulers to give (more often, sell) exclusive publication rights to a single local copy shop. This was especially important for the major books such as the Bible and Koran. The age of the text didn't matter; the rulers wanted to make sure that 1) only an authorized translation was produced, and 2) the supply was limited so that the hoi polloi couldn't read the texts themselves.

      This isn't all that different in principal from what modern "publishers" like those TV companies are trying to do. They want to be the sole supplier of the information, partly so that you'll have to buy their service and watch their ads if you want to see the information. In both cases, the motive has nothing to do with creativity; it's all about control of the information that the masses have access to, and their "right" to collect money for access to the information.

      There was a clear example of this back around 1220, which you can read about in various books on the Mongol "invasion" of Europe. Their first expedition was exploratory, and they took along a small military force mostly for protection from the bandits that they knew infested the far West. Those soldiers fought a lot of defensive battles, because the reports that preceded them described a flock of demonic killers who were ravaging the countryside, and local rulers sent troops to attack them. The main reason for this, it seems, was that Genghis (not yet Khan) & buddies also took along a troop of Korean printers. The Koreans had a mobile print shop set up in their wagons, and as they travelled, they printed and sold cheap editions of whatever was popular locally. This was mostly Korans in central Asia, and Bibles further west. This was a direct threat to the western rulers' control over their own populations, which was based in part on control over the local production of religious and other texts. The response was a campaign to paint the Mongols as demonic visitors intent on killing everyone in their path. By then, of course, the real intent was to depose the demonic western rulers (and replace them with a modern, enlightened form of government ;-). They did succeed in establishing a much cheaper printing industry (and religious freedom) in the areas that they conquered. But the eastern printing technology was embargoed in western Europe, and it took several more centuries for it to be developed by Gutenberg et al in the 1400s.

      The use of copyright to control access to information is an old story. And from the start, copyright was applied to texts centuries or even millennia old.

  • Copyright (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Seriousity (1441391) <{Seriousity} {at} {live.com}> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @01:48AM (#27671557)

    With some of the contributions being over 8,000 years old, this has to be the longest copyright extension ever offered.

    Is anyone surprised at this? Seriously, does copyright ever end these days?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Petrushka (815171)

      With some of the contributions being over 8,000 years old, this has to be the longest copyright extension ever offered.

      Is anyone surprised at this? Seriously, does copyright ever end these days?

      Pretty much the entire content of the site appears to consist of photographs (or facsimiles, if you prefer; I don't know the details of how the images were copied). Somehow I doubt the photographs were taken 8000 years ago.

      If you were to transcribe the text of The Precious Book on Noteworthy Dates by Husayn bin Zayd bin 'Ali al-Jahhaf, written in the 10th century, you won't be infringing anyone's copyright. However, if you reproduce the images ... beware.

    • Re:Copyright (Score:5, Informative)

      by CowboyBob500 (580695) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @02:43AM (#27671761) Homepage
      I honestly can't believe that anyone actually thinks that the copyright is on the content of the items. It's pretty obvious that the copyright is on the photographs taken of the items.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Photos of uncopyrighted human works are themselves not copyrighted unless the photographer adds his own artistic expression through the angle, composition, lightning, scribbling or whatever the fuck else, at least in my country. You can't just scan it, burn the originals, and be good for another infinity years.

        If you get a copyright on a scan/photo of a document, wouldn't you get copyright on a print as well? That would mean that when you print 5000 copies of a book, each one is a separate derivative work w

        • Re:Copyright (Score:4, Interesting)

          by mr_matticus (928346) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @11:00AM (#27674831)

          Photos of uncopyrighted human works are themselves not copyrighted unless the photographer adds his own artistic expression through the angle, composition, lightning, scribbling or whatever the fuck else

          Yes, but the bar for such application of creativity is extremely low. Courts don't answer the question of "what is art?"--they simply pose it.

          It all comes down to the labor, couched in your country's copyright framework. It is expensive, time-consuming, and requires considerable skill to prepare these digitizations. Whether your country recognizes the natural right of the parties undertaking that effort or whether you have to couch the analysis in an economic incentive rationale, copyright is the mechanism that allows museums some way to cover the costs and continue to provide this service for other works.

          It is true that a pretty standard photograph of an item (for example, a scanned page from a book) doesn't grant a powerful or useful copyright--you can't stop others from taking their own photograph. But you can stop others from simply taking your image itself and reproducing or distributing it.

          The scope of copyright protection would be extremely narrow for archival preservation like this, but certainly not nonexistent.

          If you get a copyright on a scan/photo of a document, wouldn't you get copyright on a print as well?

          They're one and the same. Printing copies is called reproduction, and copyright extends to all copies, including the original.

          That would mean that when you print 5000 copies of a book, each one is a separate derivative work with it's own copyright, set from the year of printing.

          No, it would mean that each copy is a copy of a copyrighted work, the effective date of which is defined by the laws of your country.

          If you scanned each copy in an iterative process, then you could secure a copyright in each copy assuming originality and creativity could be established. With mechanical reproduction (or digital copies), you can't satisfy those requirements and therefore can't get a new copyright on each one. But consider a sculpture. If you recreate the originals one at a time, by hand, without the use of a complete mold, each sculpture will have its own copyright.

          Again, the scope will be narrow and probably extend no further than literal or near-literal copying, but still a copyright. Not all copyrights are created equal.

    • The copyright laws of other countries do not necessarily apply in the United States, except as established by treaty. WIPO has no authority there.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by pbhj (607776)

        [Amended for scope:] The copyright laws of other countries do not apply in any particular country.

        An international treaty is always {{fact}} ratified into law in the host country. Laws of other countries may be upheld by a law drafted in the host country but it is the host countries law that is enforcing it.

        If someone can contradict this with evidence I'd be fascinated.

        The only example I think might exist would be a religious law?

        The USA ratified the Berne Convention in 1980-ish IIRC.

      • Maybe I'm wrong, but isn't the United States part of WIPO [wipo.int]? Or is that meaningless?

    • by johannesg (664142) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:45AM (#27672295)

      With some of the contributions being over 8,000 years old, this has to be the longest copyright extension ever offered.

      Is anyone surprised at this? Seriously, does copyright ever end these days?

      Of course not. How will the poor authors ever be stimulated to write something ever again if they cannot reap the rewards of their hard labour? Really, won't someone think of the mummy's?

      Incidentally, I'm wondering if there is anyone on the planet who is not directly descended from the people who wrote this 8000 years ago. I think I'd like to claim my share of the incoming generated by this now please!

    • Re:Copyright (Score:5, Informative)

      by mike2R (721965) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:33AM (#27672485)

      I'm wondering if that part of the summary is just a troll. "Astonishingly, the collection is covered by numerous copyright laws, according to the legal page" says the summary. Looking at the only legal page I can find: http://www.wdl.org/en/legal.html [wdl.org] it says:

      About Copyright and the Collections

      Content found on the WDL Web site is contributed by WDL partners. Copyright questions about partner content should be directed to that partner. When publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in a WDL partner's collections, the researcher has the obligation to determine and satisfy domestic and international copyright law or other use restrictions.

      You can find out more information about copyright law in the World Intellectual Property Organization's member states at http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/ [wipo.int].

      Maybe I've missed another page or something, but that just seems like a standard bit of CYA, not an attempt to extend copyrights by millennia.

    • Author's right does. But hey, 'e's dead. Remember. *Copy*right* is the right of the publisher. The one who wants to give the creator even less. And the one that has no reason to exist in these days, but fights hard for what's left of his life.
      ^^

    • Reminds me of the James Bond movies. Just run a filtering algorithm over the video and slap "Digitally Remastered" on the DVD cover. And suddenly it's © 2009.
    • by elrous0 (869638) *

      Years ago, I used to teach a class that included a section on U.S. copyright. After years of trying to make sense of it all to students and giving them the "life of the author and 50 years after the author's death" routine, I finally just threw my hands up after the 1998 Extension [wikipedia.org] and started telling them "If a work was created after 1921, it will probably be under copyright forever."

      Thanks, Disney! Isn't it bad enough for you to rape our kids and introduce all the vacuous pop stars to the world? Do you h

    • Is anyone surprised at this? Seriously, does copyright ever end these days?

      I am starting to believe copyright was what killed this civilisations. Atlantis probably decided to sink itself than pay the license fees.

      I honestly feel that copyright holders would rather see the death of civilisation and culture before relinquishing their hold on their over extended copyrights, and even then.

  • Go (Score:2, Funny)

    by Evelas (1531407)
    Did anyone else see "Ancient Books Go..." and think they'd discovered some ancient Go books?
    • by jd (1658)

      Just a curiosity question: Do you program in Forth much?

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @01:54AM (#27671579) Journal

    Surprisingly, as time goes by, the amount of ancient material available INCREASES every year. Old texts that are found and discovered are digitized and released to the world, rather than being lost in obscurity, readable by a small handful until the ultimate demise of the original work.

    I see this every day.

    For example, years back, when I was in High School, I was a big fan of "alternative" music. Bands like Depeche Mode, Erasure, Bauhaus, and others were my meat and potatoes, but being raised in small-town, USA, I had to work like the pretty hard to find stuff to listen to. My specialty was rare concert mixes and exploratory remixes - in many cases, I resigned to dubbing cassettes in order to get my fix.

    Today, it's much easier for me to find rare, concert remixes! Many (most?) are available in mere seconds a la YouTube, as well as MP3s by LimeWire! And it seems that with each year, more and more and more obscure stuff is available - from Jerry Lee Lewis concerts to Arlo Guthrie live to early stage mixes of Yaz (then "Yazoo") ...

    Why is this so?

    Take a look at the Long Tail Economics [wired.com] principle made possible by the network effect of the Internet. This is one of the most insightful articles that exists on the Internet!

    • by syousef (465911)

      Take a look at the Long Tail Economics principle made possible by the network effect of the Internet. This is one of the most insightful articles that exists on the Internet!

      Unable to compute. Too many buzzwords. My head is gonna explode!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by antic (29198)

      The tip of the tail will change and data (rare songs or live recordings) will slip off the available net unless a couple of organisations start cataloguing every single piece of such information.

    • Why is this so?

      You can thank piracy for that.

    • So your example of ancient material being digitized is concert recordings from the past 30 years? You and I have a *COMPLETELY* different definition of ancient!

  • by Anachragnome (1008495) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @02:01AM (#27671609)

    Gravestone uncovered by excavations for the new Pan-Continental Bicycle Suspension Bridge Project...

    "Here Lies Alfred E. Neuman
    Mad as Hell...
    Born 1954, Died 2337
    Copyright, 1954"

    • I'd be more worried if someone copyrighted my gravestone epitaph in the year I was born. Especially when said epitaph included my year of death.
  • no big deal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by belmolis (702863) <billposer@alum.m[ ]edu ['it.' in gap]> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @02:04AM (#27671625) Homepage

    The bit about copyright on the "legal" page is just boilerplate. All it means is that the presentation of a document on this site doesn't necessarily make it public domain or grant some other license, that the owners of the original document retain whatever rights they have. The copyright laws of individual countries are only valid within that country - you only need to concern yourself with your own country's laws. There are indeed a lot of problems with excessive copyright in the world, but the copyright concerns in the post are much ado about nothing.

  • Yes tech.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @02:26AM (#27671701) Homepage

    To the people tagging this !tech:

    The success of technology is intimately tied to the free flow of information. Issues like there are important, because poorly designed restrictions inhibit our ability to make technological progress without spending a huge amount of resources on needless legal bickering.

    If 8000-year-old documents are being withheld from the public domain there's a problem. A problem affecting both the richness of our culture and our ability to do science and apply it in the technology sector.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo (153816)

      If 8000-year-old documents are being withheld from the public domain there's a problem.

      If 8,000 year old documents are being read it's a sign that we need to rethink hard drives.

      • by stdarg (456557)

        Don't worry, in another 8000 years societies will find our old broken down hard drives and be like "Oh it's so simple to read, we should definitely rethink our antiblue storage"

  • by F34nor (321515) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @03:12AM (#27671907)

    The Sankrt texts that are written on banana leaves in India need to be oiled to prevent them breaking down. Part of the the deal for the caste system was that the Brahmans had to upkeep the texts, unfortunately now they are in a modern society and these text are being lost to decay. The yoga karuna (the instructions of astanga yoga) was "eaten by the ants" according to S.K Patabi Jois.

    • by clarkkent09 (1104833) * on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @03:41AM (#27672067)
      An interesting question is whether they will survive as long in the digital format as they did in banana leaf format. They might not be eaten by ants, but they can easily disappear in failing hard drives, formats that nobody can read anymore, accidental deletes or perhaps just buried under the mountains and mountains of information with little hope of ever being found again. The primary job of historians 1000 years from now might well be deciphering long forgotten file formats from dusty libraries of ancient hard drives, CDs etc.
      • by esme (17526)

        Just as in ancient times, librarians are working on these problems.

        Failing hard drives are only a problem if you foolishly store data on only one drive, or on only one system. Most of the people I know store multiple copies locally, and as many copies remotely as they can. For example, the system I work with every day has data at three main sites: one in my library's server room, one in another place on campus, and a third in another part of the state. Each of these sites has redundant drives, tape backu

        • I wouldn't call PDF an open format. It's well-documented, yes, but is controlled by Adobe.

          Sorry if it sounds pedantic but they have made changes to the format over the years that harm preservation of data, like mechanisms for DRM and certain uses of a document through their reader.

  • Excellent! (Score:5, Funny)

    by krou (1027572) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:10AM (#27672185)
    I hear Gozer was very big in Sumeria. Hopefully there's something in these texts to suggest what he's doing in my icebox.
  • As a descendant of all these authors I claim my cut of the monies due ...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:27AM (#27672449)

    There is a Swedish company that has done this in Sweden. Their user side technology is based on a really horrible Flash interface, but most public collections of rare manuscripts are available online. I talked with one of their representatives about a year ago and, if I don't remember incorrect, there were about 900 manuscripts already published at different Swedish museum sites and even more in the process of being photographed.

    Sweden pillaged Northern and Middle Europe for more then a thousand year (and those parts of Europe pillaged southern Europe and their pillage ended up as our pillage), no other nation ever got much of a chance to pillage Sweden and now our museums have a lot more European manuscripts then the rest of Europe all together, from about any culture that has been writing things down in Europe. The selection is kind of random as the Swedish armies/vikings/pirates preferred books with a lot of gold and jewels (usually removed when the books reached Sweden) or parchment books that could be made into blank books to be used for military book keeping and didn't look much at the actual content. Although there where sometimes standing orders from Swedish scholars what to take and from the Thirty Years' War and forward there where always a large group of scholar expert pillagers accompanying the Swedish army.

    • There is a Swedish company that has done this in Sweden.

      Almost certainly the best place for a Swedish company to do so, in my limited experience.

  • English (Score:3, Informative)

    by hey (83763) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @06:59AM (#27672847) Journal

    Quite a few in English...
    http://www.wdl.org/en/search/gallery?ql=eng&l=English

  • There are already several project to scan and/or make available ancient texts [see, for example,
    http://gallica.bnf.fr/ [gallica.bnf.fr] or http://www.archive.org/ [archive.org] , not to say of the more specialist sites like http://www.etana.org/ [etana.org] (for ancient near-east history) or the impressive Posner Collection at
    http://posner.library.cmu.edu/Posner/ [cmu.edu] ]
    However, most of these (with the remarkable exception of gallica and cmu)
    mostly present late XIX
    early XX century editions of the texts. This is good, but I feel it is definitely in

  • by Fished (574624) <amphigory@gmaCOMMAil.com minus punct> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @09:45AM (#27674093)

    Really, copyrighting of ancient texts is nothing new. The thing is that you don't generally find an ancient text all nicely wrapped up, clear and legible in one place. Generally, you find bits and pieces of it scattered all over the place, and have to piece it together from many contradictory sources. Hence, scholars develop what are called "critical editions"--editions of ancient texts where scholars or teams of scholars have put tremendous amounts of effort into making a best effort at reconstructing the original text. Seriously, in some cases even deciphering the hand-writing can be difficult.

    The best example is the New Testament, where there are literally tens of thousands of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts dating from the first few centuries. For the most part, they agree, however there are some significant differences. (For a really egregious example, take a look at Mark 16.9ff. in a modern translation, and read the footnotes. Good place to look would be the NET, available online at bible.org). It takes a non-trivial amount of effort to sort through these thousands of manuscripts and variations and decide which one is the "original".

    Another good example would be my copy of the works of Origen, a second-third century Christian scholar. Origen fell out of favor in the late third and fourth centuries and a lot of his works were lost. So, his works have not survived in one piece. My edition of Origen has three columns--Latin fragments, where he was quoted by Latin fathers, Greek fragments, where he was quoted by Greek fathers, and an English translation that tries to put it all together. Note that Origen wrote in Greek, so that the Latin fragments are translations of his words, not his original words.

    Now, I personally have some serious reservations whether this sort of work is sufficiently original to merit a copyright. But, thus far, it has been concluded that it is. I suppose the real answer would be, "sometimes it is, and sometimes it ain't. But the only way to test it would be to slap the work up on your website and wait to get sued.

  • by Eravnrekaree (467752) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @09:54AM (#27674173)

    The number of Hindu and Buddhist texts is vast, and some of the oldest on the planet. I wonder if they will get around to digitising these.

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      I wonder if they will get around to digitizing these.

      Who is "they"?

      In other words, if you feel that digitizing these is important, what are YOU doing to move the process forward?
  • For Christ's sake... does everything have to be a contest? How does this even map to one and why would you want it to be?
    • by jd (1658)

      Because museums and culture ministers like something to brag about. So long as THEY treat it as a contest, they're going to submit material. The moment they see it as educational, well, that's the department of education, which is some other guy. Not their problem any more.

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      Oh, so I suppose you never even look at your Karma score? And by the way, I'm beating you 22 Achievements to 16 Achievements! Suck on that, LOSER! ;-)
  • Copiepresse sued the World Digital Library for infringement.

  • Book-format (codexes) werent really popular until A.D.

    I am guessing because many Jewish temples use scroll-Torahs, that somebody has implemented a "virtual Torah".
  • The viewer uses Canvas, which is pretty cool, but... if you're doing scaling and panning through a document and are okay with using new technologies then I wonder why they didn't build parts of it with SVG (since that's a way to do zooming & panning pretty naturally).

    I don't have much experience with canvas yet, anyone have input?

  • I do not know if they count Egypt in Middle east or north Africa, but it is telling that there are little to no contributions from the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of whom make Europe and South America look like recent news.
    Yup, there is nothing east of Mecca.
  • There is nothing on whether the original artists get royalties, however.

    I think that many of the original artists were royalty.

APL is a write-only language. I can write programs in APL, but I can't read any of them. -- Roy Keir

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