Printing the Obvious

August 9, 2007


So, what a surprise. Amazon has announced that it’s starting a Lulu-type POD system, through its wholly-owned subsidiary CreateSpace, which has been churning out self-published CDs and DVDs for several years now. The difference to Lulu being that products of said service will be searchable and buyable through the mighty, making them much more discoverable than stuff on Lulu, which is mostly only linked to from authors’ homepages.

There’s a bigger story here though, and it’s linked to this announcement:

The National Archives and Records Administration, the federal government’s official archivist, has entered into an agreement with CreateSpace, an subsidiary, to digitize the motion pictures in its collection. CreateSpace will digitize movies chosen from NARA’s collection of more than 200,000 motion picture titles, most of them public domain. will then make the DVDs available in a DVD-on-demand service ($19.99).

Creating better access to archives is unquestionably A Good Thing, but this way of doing things provokes a number of questions. The NARA claims they can’t possibly afford the costs of digitisation, and so getting Amazon to do it benefits everyone, as they get free, new copies for their archives. Charging for DVD hard copies on Amazon’s part is also justifiable, but what about electronic copies?

The reported trigger for the NARA’s decision was an earlier partnership with Google, which saw a trial run of 101 films made available through Google Video. From 200 requests for the hard copies in the previous year, the movies were seen over 200,000 times when available on the web – a clear indication that the interest was there, but not the availability. Hence the Createspace project. The NARA and Amazon executives have made the fascinating and fantastic statement that the material will remain in the public domain, meaning you can copy your Createspace DVD as many times as you like—but will they cut out the middleman and make the whole, Createspace-digitised archive available online through Google Video or similar?

The question is particularly pertinent because this is exactly what concerns me about Google Book Search: entering into partnership with libraries and archives to digitise public domain content, but not honouring the spirit of that public domain status by making the texts fully available and downloadable (including, particularly, being indexable by other agents). The Amazon/NARA partnership seems almost too good to be true, but public-private partnerships make me nervous (if you live in London, like I do, you’ll know exactly what I mean), and when rights and digital access are involved, I get very nervous indeed.


  1. (Disclaimer: I work for Lulu, but am commenting on my own and as a librarian.)

    1. Lulu authors can get there books listed on Amazon, it just follows a more traditional process.:
    Purchase ISBN –> Books in Print –> Retail:

    2. Lulu offers a content API that offers archives and libraries the opportunity to publish quantities of already digitized out of copyright/public domain materials. Publishyoursefer is taking advantage of this:

    Even without the API, Lulu is valuable for reprints like the the Mises Institute is doing.

    3. The concern about Google Library and other projects where for-profits do the digitization is ownership of the digital content. Will NARA be able to offer free downloads from there website, or will they need to digitize everything all over again to do so?

    While Lulu isn’t doing the digitizing for the libraries, content creators on Lulu maintain full ownership of anything they publish. In fact they are able to offer free downloads through the Lulu website.

    Comment by Michael C. Habib — August 9, 2007 @ 10:09 pm

  2. Thank you Michael! That’s exactly the kind of info I’m trying to see reach a wider audience. There are a lot of barriers to the ordinary user accessing that info; thank you for linking it.

    Comment by James Bridle — August 9, 2007 @ 11:34 pm

  3. You’re welcome. I am always glad to meet someone thinking along the same lines.

    Comment by Michael C. Habib — August 10, 2007 @ 1:37 am

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