Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How Global Is The Google Settlement?

We received the following comment to a blog we posted last week and felt that it was appropriate to raise it in its own right for all to read.

You wrote: "We must note that although the Google Book Settlement is a US only issue..."

That's right only in the limited sense that the settlement can only impacts U.S. copyrights. A U.S. federal district court can't alter how the copyright laws of other countries are applied within their borders.

But the "U.S. copyrights" impacted by this settlement are not just formal copyrights given U.S. citizens or foreigners living here by our copyright office. They include U.S. copyrights automatically granted by treaty to the citizens of the some 160 countries with which we have treaty agreements. Publish a book in India and you automatically acquire a U.S. copyright. You need not file any document or pay any fee. That's a marvelous aspect of those treaties.

But keep in mind a perverse result of those treaties. They don't permit a country to treat treaty-granted copyrights any different from those it grants its own citizens. The assumption was that countries would treat their own citizens more favorably. But that treaty obligation works in reverse. The settlement can't screw the U.S. authors without screwing all such authors om the world. That is the chief sticking point of the settlement, not the muddled anti-trust implications.

This means that virtually everyone who has written a book published any where in the world will have their U.S. copyright castrated by this settlement. Because of the perverse 'opt-in if you don't formally opt-out' provisions, far-distant authors have never heard of the settlement will be hurt. All Google need do is find a copy of that book, and with a willing library, it doesn't even need to buy that copy.

You are right that this settlement could "unravel" international agreements and the good will on which they depend. Google's scheme depended on other countries not knowing of what the settlement meant until after it was approved. The four-month delay I and six other authors got the court to approve ended any chance of that. European politicians now know what the settlement means and have begun to act.

Google's lawyers also made a major mistake. They assumed those they want to manipulate are stupid. Google had hoped they would counter this settlement with something similar, something to screw obscure U.S. authors, allowing Google to reap most of the benefits. But Europeans aren't interested in reading obscure American books. They are interested in reducing the impact Hollywood has on their cultures.

That's why they're will hit us elsewhere. There's not much money to be made in displaying out-of-print works. Google knows it can only profit from them by being ruthlessly efficient and cheap.

But if this settlement is approved, Europeans will almost certainly hit us where it hurts most. They'll weaken copyright protection where we make the most money: in movies and music. For that they'll be loudly applauded by virtually every member of the creative classes in their countries.

Because of the issues of orphaned works and display on the Internet are so closely linked to existing treaty obligations, there is only one way those issues can be settled. A mere federal court can't do it. Lawyers in the Justice Department certainly can't do it. Even Congress can't legislate an answer for all the world's writers. These issues have to be dealt with by amending those treaties, taking care to be fair to all involved.

--Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

1 comment:

JP_Fife said...

While I'm no lover of the Google settlement or even Google scanning in books (Project Gutenberg anyone?) the fundemental issue of copyright does have to be addressed, and not only by the rights holders as is happening in the secret ACTA talks. The public need to be considered in this; the public domain is dying because artists want to control their rights for longer, and industries want to control their rights by punishing consumers. No one is speaking up for the members of the public - who are the vast majority in this issue. It'll never happen but copyrights should end on a person's death: what sense is there in paying dead people? But as long as politicians are guided by the money put into their pockets and not the decency in their hearts we will always have bad laws.