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Doing Google Books right

Having written in opposition to the Google Books Settlement (1 2 3), I was pleased with Judge Chin’s decision overall. The GBS (which, a couple of generations ago would have unambiguously referred to George Bernard Shaw) was worked out by Google, the publishers, and the Authors Guild without schools, libraries, or readers at the table. The problems with it were legion, although over time it had gotten somewhat less obnoxious.

Yet, I find myself slightly disappointed. We so desperately need what Google was building, even though it shouldn’t have been Google (or any single private company) that is building it. In particular, the GBS offered a way forward on the “orphaned works” problem: works that are still in copyright but the owners of the copyright can’t be found and often are probably long dead. So, you come across some obscure 1932 piece of music that hasn’t been recorded since 1933. You can’t find the person who wrote it because, let’s face it, his bone sack has been mouldering since Milton Berle got his own TV show, and the publishers of the score went out of business before FDR started the Lend-Lease program. You want to include 10 seconds of it in your YouTube ode to the silk worm. You can’t because some dead guy and his defunct company can’t be exhumed to nod permission. Multiply this times millions, and you’ve got an orphaned works problem that has locked up millions of books and songs in a way that only a teensy dose of common sense could undo. The GBS applied that common sense — royalties would be escrowed for some period in case the rights owner staggered forth from the grave to claim them.. Of course the GBS then divvied up the unclaimed profits in non-common-sensical ways. But at least it broke the log jam.

Now it seems it’ll be up to Congress to address the orphaned works problem. But given Congress’ maniacal death-grip on copyright, it seems unlikely that common sense will have any effect and our culture will continue to be locked up for seventy years beyond the grave in order to protect the 0.0001 percent of publishers’ catalogs that continue to sell after fourteen years. (All numbers entirely made up for your reading pleasure.)

As Bob Darnton points out, this is one of the issues that a Digital Public Library of America could address.


James Grimmelmann has an excellent and thorough explanation of the settlement, and a prediction for its future.

7 Responses to “Doing Google Books right”

  1. The prospect of a Digital Library Of America is extremely interesting to me. I tend to read and research from books that have never been bestsellers and are frequently unavailable at public and even University libraries.

    Since the financial downturn, the large booksellers have reduced their range of books on their shelves to more dependable bestsellers. So even if they are in print, you may never find them by browsing the bookstore shelves.

    How would this operate? Would you have access to the book for only as long as you are connected to the library website? Or could you somehow electronically borrow a book for a limited period of time?

    I wonder if there is some way to transcend the dichotomy between Copyright and Free Access.

    I am thinking of the manner in which patents are given for a period of 25 years before a drug can become generic.

    So the author receives income for a reasonable period of time (30 years?) after which the book becomes a generic digital title.

    Cloth or paper copies beyond the 30 years would still necessitate royalties to prevent a publisher from capitalizing and making profit from an author’s work.

    30 years might be reasonable in light of the fact that author’s usually write more than one book and so could sustain their income from several books. As a published author, you would know much more about this flow of royalties than I do.

    After the Author’s death, the book becomes entirely public domain. In order to receive royalty income, the children of the author would have to write their own books.

    I just think that one’s reward for the effort of writing a book could be balanced with the merits of the book being shared with as many people as possible.

    In reading the article on The Digital Library of America I came upon this remarkable sentence –

    “A professor of mine once complained about his latest crop of students. ‘There has never been a generation more capable of finding data nor less capable of understanding it.’ ”

    In light of the publication of your current book, could the younger generation be ‘Too connected to Know’?

  2. It is the nature and terms of current Copyright that is causing this mess. Copyright is too long and is not being adequately enforced.

    Just staying with current US copyright illustrates this quite nicely.
    Copyright’s original goal was to give creators a limited monopoly on reproduction for a limited term (14yrs.), at which time the work became part of the Public Domain, available to all. In the litigation land grab, everybody sweeps the public domain under the rug.

    The only significant change to copyright was the ability for the Author to renew their copyright for an additional 14 years.
    It can be argued that this was the beginning of copyright as a welfare payment system for heirs and/or publishers depending on contract. which was not the intent of copyright in the first place. Adding sound and video recordings just updated the different methods of creativity.

    In 1976 the US dropped the requirement for mandatory registration and granted copyright automatically under the vague rubric of ‘fixed form’, which in 76 was printed in some form. This is the biggest mistake made around copyright and gave birth to the current crop of litigation and full employment for copyright and ‘intellectual property’ lawyers.
    Two points here: registration is required for copyright litigation to proceed, and most registrations are corporate in nature as part of publishing contracts. Signing over your rights is usually the bedrock of any publishing contract regardless of media.

    As you mentioned the digital world has changed things not only in what fixed form is, but also it’s reproduction, making publication something that happens on a computer in one’s bathrobe rather than in a building with printing presses, sound or movie studios.

    Most current copyright litigation is industry driven, whether it be publishers or their ‘association’ mouthpieces. RIAA,MPAA, etc.

    The Authors Guild and the AAP are coming late to the party and are disguising motion as activity to cover up their shortcomings in ‘protecting’ the interest of their members.

    That Google was first out of the box in thinking about media in digital form should be applauded rather than being scorned for saving cultural items. That there are areas where money if made, should be split is an issue for another day, although I would bring back mandatory registration, cut back copyright back to 14 years with no extensions and use the money to enhance the storage, cataloging, and enforcement of copyright to the Copyright Office, and create a more robust Public Domain System.

  3. […] “Yet, I find myself slightly disappointed. We so desperately need what Google was building, even though it shouldn’t have been Google (or any single private company) that is building it. In particular, the GBS offered a way forward on the “orphaned works” problem: works that are still in copyright but the owners of the copyright can’t be found and often are probably long dead.” David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, 26. März 2010 […]

  4. Was Kindle so alles verändert…

    Nachdem ich jetzt ein wenig mit dem Lesen auf Kindle for Mac und Kindle for Android herumprobiert habe, kann ich sagen, daß es für mich funktioniert. Und zwar seltsamerweise auf dem Android besser als auf dem Mac. Ich kann nur noch nicht sagen wieso – …

  5. There are two necessary and sufficient reforms.

    1) Anything that “goes out of print” becomes public domain.

    2) Prohibit assignment of copyright.


  6. Where can buy Jersey?

  7. Well a book revolution is a long time coming that’s for sure. I can’t find my favorite books in bookstores anymore.

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