A Reversal of Copyright Law
Last Friday we summarized the basic details of the Google Book Search Settlement. Like the visual arts “databases” we opposed last year, this agreement would allow both Google and a yet-to-be-created Book Rights Registry to commercially profit from an author’s work whenever they say they can’t locate the author.
Both schemes would force authors to opt out of commercial operations that infringe their work – or to “protect” their work by opting-in to privately owned databases run by infringers. This Hobson’s Choice for authors reverses the principle of copyright law.
The by-product of the Google settlement (again like the Orphan Works bill) would be to establish public access to private property as the default position in copyright law. In other words, it presumes:
a.) that the public is entitled to use your work as a primary right,
b.) that it’s your legal obligation to make your work available, and
c.) that if you fail to do so, you forfeit your exclusive right to control access to your work.
If you’re an author and you wish to keep the book you write from becoming a potential orphan, you’d therefore have to register it with the Book Rights Registry run by the parties that settled with Google (and who will receive an award of $30 million for cutting themselves in).
Advocates of the deal try to justify it by saying it will make more books available to more people than at any other time in history – a claim that’s no doubt true – but therefore they say, as Andrew Albanese writes in Publishers Weekly, “the massive public good of the deal far outweigh[s] the individual greivances [sic] of rightsholders.”
Yet it’s in this very argument that the danger lies.
Once the Copy Left has established a legal precedent that the property rights of authors can be subordinated to the assertion of public interest, they can build on that principle to enact further statute and case laws to benefit commercial interests. To do this, they’ll have to chip away further at the inherent property rights of individuals.
Orphan Works: “Half a Loaf”
An example of the agenda that underlies both the Google book search settlement and the Orphan Works bill came in May, 2008, at a time when the Orphan Works bill looked to be a shoo-in by early summer. Anticipating a quick mopping up operation, the bill’s advocates were high-fiving one another. But as James V. DeLong of the Convergence Law Institute reminded them, there was still much work ahead.
Calling the Orphan Works bill just “half a loaf,” he hinted at what it would take to permit commercial interests to take the whole loaf:
“These possibly-orphan, sort-of-orphan, and gray literature works simply cannot be made available if the digitizers are required to make one-by-one judgments and seek permission before copying. If they are to be retrieved in useful form, then sooner or later Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and some others must be permitted to digitize on a massive scale.”
Of course he acknowledged that the new reverse copyright law should not deprive intellectual property owners of their “legitimate rights.” But he reaffirmed the Copy Left’s fundamental premise that intellectual property owners should not be entitled to legitimate rights except in situations where they’ve registered their works:
“At some point, some kind of grand grandfathering proceeding will probably be required, a window in which holders of existing rights must reaffirm them or lose them.” (Italics added)
Again, this is the same premise we see at work in the Google book settlement. As Lynn Chu, a principal at Writers Representatives LLC, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2009:
“Under the settlement, every rights-owner in America is supposed to hand over all their private contract data, on every edition of every work they ever wrote — and every excerpt permission ever granted to others — at the peril of losing the money Google will be making on their backs. This is a massive burden on everyone in the book industry, making us all, in effect, Google’s data-entry slaves. Indeed, in most cases such information about every permission ever granted is unlocatable. It opens a Pandora’s box of disputes and mistaken claims about who actually owns what.” (Italics added)
This is identical to our warning last year about the Orphan Works bill:
“[The Orphan Works bill] would force artists either to entrust their entire life’s work to privately owned commercial databases or see it exposed to widespread infringement. It would let giant image banks access our commercial inventory and metadata – and enter our commercial markets as clearinghouses to compete with us for our own clients. I can think of no other field where small business owners can be pressured to supply potential competitors with their content, business data and client contact information.” – Brad Holland, Small Business Administration Roundtable, August 8, 2008
The War on Authors
Both the Google Book settlement and the Orphan Works bill have their intellectual rationale in the war on authors that began decades ago in the obscure theories of Postmodern literary critics. Their fundamental premise is that all creativity is communal and that authors are only the agents through which the community creates. This has led a handful of activist legal scholars to demand changes in the law requiring artists, writers and others to affirm and reaffirm the rights to use their own work by, in effect, licensing it from the public “commons.”
This argument, Marxist in its origins, has found its unlikely champion in those large commercial Internet interests that hope to build Information Age empires supplying businesses and the public with creative “content.” By defining millions of works as orphans on the premise that some might be, both the Google Book settlement and the Orphan Works bill would allow these opportunists to profit by harvesting the work of others, providing their databases with content they could never afford to create themselves nor license from authors.
Next: Orphan Works and the Google Book Settlement /Part III: Compelling Arguments
The Register of the US Copyright Office has condemned the Google settlement in terms nearly identical to our condemnation last year of the Orphan Works bill. In Part III, we’ll examine those similarities to see the patterns that are emerging from this insidious effort to change copyright law.