Monday 14 December 2009

Google’s books: a Special Relationship with copyright

In years to come we will look back on the Google Book Settlement as a historic turning point in the history of copyright, David Carson (General Counsel, US Copyright Office) told the IBC International Copyright Law conference in London last week. In my presentation to the conference I added that now that the Settlement only includes books published in the UK, Canada and Australia or registered with the US Copyright Office, the UK has a key role to play in making this historic decision. So how do you go about making a historic decision? Can we rise to the challenge or are we frozen in the headlights of History?

While Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have weighed in on the subject, the UK seems to be preoccupied with other things. Perhaps we’re too busy carrying out a post-mortem into another historic decision to find the time to get our heads round a new one. On the other hand, maybe there’s something useful we can learn from our past, a lesson about going it alone in the international community, taking the law into your own hands...

International copyright law says that authors have exclusive rights to authorize the reproduction and making available of their works, and these rights should not be subject to formalities. Google has scanned over 10 million books. The Settlement is a licence to exploit them in numerous ways. It is significantly lacking in authors’ authorization and it imposes burdensome formalities.

But so what, if it makes some people happy and other people money? The problem is that this is a major one-off suspension of international law for the benefit of one company. Unsurprisingly, the effect is anti-competitive. Not only does Google get to be king of US publishing overnight but, more importantly, this further bolsters its dominant position in the global online advertising business. And this isn’t just one company in pole position, it’s one nation. The Settlement is a licence to make millions of out-of-print books available in just one country, the US. Nobody anywhere else in the world will be able to access this immense resource. The playing field is going to be sloping for many people, including academics, researchers, lawyers....

Historic decisions are worth getting right.

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