A federal judge has voided an agreement made between Google and a consortium of book publishers regarding the Google Books project. In my opinion, this could spell good news for choral musicians. Let me explain.
The Google Books project involves scanning the contents of entire libraries. Just like Google Maps and other large-scale projects, Google Books is intended to create a meta-library of all human knowledge, easily searchable from one central location. For copyrighted works, the search result wouldn’t return the entire book but just a small, fair-use-style excerpt, so users would have to seek out the original source through legitimate channels in order to read it.
The Author’s Guild and the American Association of Publishers filed suit in 2005, and eventually agreed to a settlement, purportedly on behalf of all copyright holders, to provide a revenue stream to the authors and publishers in exchange for being able to display the works online. The reason the court rejected the agreement was because it was binding on all authors, even those who hadn’t participated in the suit, and on so-called “orphan works” whose authors are unknown or unreachable, and only applied to Google.
The good news about all of this is that it makes it more likely that Google will lobby Congress for changes in the copyright law. There’s never been an effective lobbying organization on behalf of copyright consumers — only for copyright holders — and so the law has become more and more lopsided towards the interests of copyright holders. Copyright terms are far too long. It’s ridiculous that a book (or piece of music) published in 1930, and out of print for 50 years, has the same protection as the latest best seller. It means if you or I want to perform that piece, we can’t buy it, and we can’t copy it, and we might have a heck of a time figuring out who to ask permission from. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of protected works are out of print, and there’s a whole industry of copyright vultures who do nothing but file lawsuits on behalf of unavailable works. This doesn’t benefit anyone except lawyers.
Although the judge left open the option that they might renegotiate for an “opt-in” program that authors would have to sign up for, it’s doubtful Google would agree to that, since it would undermine a huge part of the project. So lobbying for Congressional action might be the outcome.
With a heavyweight like Google on our side, maybe there will be some easing of the extreme copyright protections which have passed in recent decades. The U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to enact copyrights “for a limited time,” which hardly seems to accurately describe the current century-plus lengths of copyright terms.
One option might be to provide that any work which goes unpublished for some length of time — say ten years — goes automatically into the public domain. While this requires a certain vigilance against pro-forma publication, it helps works get into wider circulation. Maybe the Copyright Office could join the 21st century and provide a centralized database detailing what’s actually in print, and who holds the copyrights. Either that or reducing copyright terms to the realistic profitable lifespan of a work, say 25 years. But there’s a whole movie industry to lobby against that.