An Unpopular View of Google Books


I’m starting to feel like the only person who thinks the Google Books settlement with authors and publishers is a good deal. One voice that seems not to be heard, however, over the din of Google competitors, panicky law professors, and regulators who wouldn’t know a workable solution to a copyright problem (created by regulators) if it bit them, is anyone speaking for consumers.

My opinion piece today on CNET argues that the real problem with the settlement has nothing to do with the 165-page document, which is increasingly coming to look like the sausage-making that it is.  (Does anyone really expect authors or publishers or anyone other than lawyers to read this and make any sense of it?)  The problem is the insanity of “modern” copyright law, which grants endless rights to all content creators, rights only the richest media companies can enforce.

For everyone else, once the modest commercial life of a work has ended, the rights are abandoned but not eliminated, leaving a no-man’s land of millions of stranded or “orphaned” works. The Google Books settlement, at least for digital users, would elegantly solve the orphan works problem. But the Copyright Office and the Department of Justice, among other creators of this mess, don’t like having their authority stepped on or their difficulties made to look easy.

As I write in Law Seven of “The Laws of Disruption”, a few basic reforms would bring copyright not only into balance but also into the reality of the 21st century. Until that happens, Google has done a good deed, which so far has not gone unpunished.