Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Orphan Works and the Google Book Settlement / Part II

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.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Orphan Works and the Google Book Settlement / Part I

We’ve been asked for news about the Orphan Works bill. Last June Intellectual Property Watch warned that it would be back during the summer. And on June 11th, Senator Orrin Hatch confirmed his intent to reintroduce the bill. We immediately put out a notice to artists. But summer’s over and we’ve had no further news. So far, so good.

Of course Congress has had other priorities: the ongoing financial mess, the health care debate and – on the copyright front – the Google book search controversy. For those who haven’t followed the news about this Google assault on copyright, we’ll try to summarize it.

The World’s Largest Library (Or is it Bookstore?)
In 2004, Google announced its intent to digitize all of the world’s 80-100 million books – and to make most of them commercially available as orphaned works. The plan has been controversial since its inception.

Google began with the cooperation of several major libraries. The libraries gave Google access to their holdings. The problem is that libraries are libraries; they don’t own the copyrights to the books they hold. In short, they gave Google the rights to other people’s work. So far, Google has scanned over 10 million books.

In 2004, the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers sued Google for copyright infringement. Last October the parties settled. The resulting agreement is 141 pages long, with 15 appendices of 179 pages. The implications for copyright holders are not clear, but what the litigants would get is breathtaking. As Lynn Chu, a principal at Writers Representatives LLC, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2009:
“[I]f approved by the federal court, [it would] permit Google to post out-of-print books for reading, sales, institutional licensing, ad sales, and other publishing exploitations, by Google, online. The settlement gives the class-action attorneys $30 million; a new, quasi-judicial bureaucracy called the Book Rights Registry $35 million...and $45 million for owners infringed up to now -- about $60 a title.”
Google would keep just over a third of the profits generated by selling these books online. The rest would go to the Book Rights Registry run by publishers’ and authors’ representatives. In other words, 63% would go to the parties that sued Google. In theory, the Registry would attempt to locate the authors of orphaned works and pay them royalties. But as Ms. Chu points out, the parties that sued Google – and would therefore benefit from Google’s infringement – have themselves traded away other people’s rights in the bargain:

“No one elected these ‘class representatives’ to represent America's tens of thousands of authors and publishers to convey their digital rights to Google. Nor are the interests of this so-called class identical.”

The US Department of Justice apparently agrees. Last Friday, it filed an objection to the settlement and advised the court to reject the settlement as written. On page 9 of their brief, the DOJ attorneys write:

“The structure of the Proposed Settlement itself, therefore, pits the interests of one part of the class (known rightsholders) against the interests of another part of the class (orphan works rightsholders). Google’s commercial use of orphan works will generate revenues, which will be deposited with the Registry. Any unclaimed revenues, however, will inure to the benefit of the Registry and its registered rightsholders. Thus, the Registry and its registered rightsholders will benefit at the expense of every rightsholder who fails to come forward to claim profits from Google’s commercial use of his or her work...
“The greater the economic exploitation of the works of unknown rightsholders by Google and the Registry, the stronger the incentive for known rightsholders to retain the unclaimed revenues for themselves.” [Emphasis added]

The Department of Justice also warns that the settlement fails to comply with copyright, antitrust laws and the rules of class action litigation.

The US federal court was scheduled to hold a fairness hearing October 7. But over 400 objections from around the world have been filed by rightsholders, competitors to Google and (in addition to the US government) the governments of France and Germany. Yesterday we received news that the fairness hearing has been delayed.

The Google settlement has also been condemned by Marybeth Peters, Register of the US Copyright Office. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, Ms. Peters stated that it would allow Google to “operate under reverse principles of copyright law,” adding “it could affect the exclusive rights of millions of copyright owners, in the United States and abroad, with respect to their abilities to control new products and new markets, for years and years to come.”

We haven’t had much to say about this agreement because, with the notable exception of childrens’ book illustrations (which for purposes of the settlement are considered part of the text) the agreement doesn’t include visual art. Yet like the Orphan Works bill itself, the Google Book Settlement would be a radical change to copyright law.

Tomorrow we’ll examine some of the ways in which this settlement parallels the Orphan Works bill.