concerns about Reveal Digital’s statement about On Our Backs

This is my third post about Reveal Digital and On Our Backs. The first post in March outlines my objections with this content being put online. The second post has some contributor agreements I found in the Cornell’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and the notes from my talk at code4libNYS.


About a month ago Reveal Digital decided to temporarily take down the On Our Backs (OOB) content. I was happy to hear about this. However I’ve got several concerns about their public statement (PDF). First, I’m concerned that citing Greenberg v. National Geographic Society foreshadows that they are going to disregard contributor agreements and concerns and put the whole collection online. Second, I’m concerned that minors accessing porn is listed ahead of contributor privacy issues and that reflects Reveal Digital’s priorities. Finally, I’m glad that Reveal Digital has broadened their idea of community consultation from financial stakeholders to include publishers, contributors, libraries, archives, researchers, and others, however I’m still worried about whose voices will be centered in these discussions.

Copyright

According to Reveal Digital the Greenberg v. National Geographic Society ruling says gives them “the legal right to create a faithful digital reproduction of the publication, without the need to obtain permissions from individual contributors”. ARL has a summary of this case and a 5 page brief written by Ben Grilliot, who was a legal intern for ARL at the time. I’m far from being an expert on US Copyright Law but I understand this to mean that if Reveal Digital digitizes the entire run of OOB without making any changes it doesn’t matter that contributor agreements has limitations. Even if this is legal, it is not ethical.

The ARL summary says “The Copyright Act is “media-neutral,” and libraries believe that it should allow publishers to take advantage of new technologies to preserve and distribute creative works to the public.” I spoke to 3 people who modelled for OOB and none of them consented to have their photos appear online (PDF). As librarians we can’t uncritically fight for access to information, we need to take a more nuanced approach.

Porn

I’m puzzled by “minors accessing sexually explicit content” as the first reason Reveal Digital listed.  I can understand that this might be a liability issue, but it’s not difficult to find porn on the internet, especially porn that is more explicit and hard core than the images in OOB. I’m confused by this. Reveal Digital describes OOB as filling “an important hole in the feminist digital canon and is an essential artifact of the ‘feminist sex wars'” so for me this is an unexpected reason. Their statement says that they need a window of time to make the necessary software upgrades to solve this issue. I’m disappointed that this reason is given ahead of contributor privacy.

Privacy

I was really happy to read how Reveal Digital articulates the importance of contributor privacy:

On the more complex issue of contributor privacy, Reveal Digital has come to share the concerns expressed by a few contributors and others around the digitization of OOB and the potential impact it might have on contributor privacy. While we feel that OOB carries an important voice that should be preserved and studied, we also feel that the privacy wishes of individual contributors should have an opportunity to be voiced and honored.

I feel like the above statement shows that they really heard and understood the concerns that many of the contributors and I had.

Community consultation

I’m thrilled to read that Reveal Digital intends to consult with various communities including “publishers, contributors, libraries, archives, researchers, and others”.

Often when people talk about consultations they mention a need to balance interests. We reject that libraries are neutral, so we need to extend that understanding to community consultation processes like these. Contributors, especially many models, could have their lives damaged by this. Researchers seek to gain prestige, grants, tenure and promotion from access to this collection and don’t stand to lose much, if anything. Different communities have a different stake in these decisions. Also, these groups aren’t homogeneous–it’s likely that some contributors will want this content online, some will be OK with some parts, and others will not any of it online. I hope that centering contributor voices is something that Reveal Digital will build into their consultation plan.

This isn’t the first digitization process that has needed community consultation. We can learn from the consultation process that took place around the digitization of the book Moko: or Maori tattooing or around the digitization of the second wave feminist periodical Spare Rib in the UK (thanks Michelle Moravec for telling me about this). Academic libraries can also learn from how public libraries build relationships with communities.

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