Blown To Bits

Orphaned Books

Sunday, April 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

When Google started the process of scanning millions of books and returning little snippets in response to search queries, the¬†Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild cried “copyright infringement!” Google countered that the little snippets it was showing fell within “fair use,” but that begged the question of whether Google had a right to make digital copies of entire books in the first place. Eventually the two sides got together and hammered out their differences. Money will start changing hands, between people willing to pay for Google’s digitized books on the one hand, and Google and the authors and publishers on the other.

The settlement is before a federal judge in New York (the same one who dealt with Bernie Madoff, as it happens). If the judge approves it, the problem goes away — sort of. Any individual author or publisher could opt out of the agreement, and retain the right to sue Google for copyright infringement separately. It’s unlikely many will choose to go that route, since by staying in the settlement class, authors will start to realize some revenues from the scanned copies. On the other hand, if another party, Microsoft say, starts digitizing books, the authors and publishers could sue it too; the settlement is a private deal with Google, not legislation dictating how such digital copies should be regarded in the future.

A subset of copyrighted works is now getting special attention. The term of copyright is now so long that many works that are still legally copyrighted have become “orphans” — no one knows who owns the copyright. Revenues will be generated from the sale of these works too and, as the settlement now stands, split up between Google and the¬†Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild. That doesn’t seem quite right, but it’s not clear what else should happen.

The New York Times had an excellent explanation of the muddle on the front page of Saturday’s paper. Stay tuned — there will be more action on this before the dust has settled.

James Grimmelmann, a Harvard computer scientist turned law professor, has a good analysis of the settlement here.

2 Responses to “Orphaned Books”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » In Which We Seek to Intervene in the Google Books Settlement Says:

    […] Orphaned Books […]

  2. A2K and orphaned work: the rise of the Open Access Trust Inc « Open Education News Says:

    […] Harry Lewis Blog here. […]