The Real Problem With The Google Book Settlement Isn't The Settlement, But Copyright Law Itself

from the fix-that-and-there's-no-problem dept

In Congressional hearings on Thursday about the Google book settlement, most of the news reports focused on two particular things: (1) the fact that Marybeth Peters, head of the US Copyright Office, spoke out against the settlement, claiming that it violates copyright law and (2) Google’s “concession” in letting other booksellers offer up the “orphan works” that Google would scan. Both are interesting, if not particularly surprising developments. Indeed, the controversy over the question of orphan works in the Google books settlement is a big one. But the real issue isn’t the settlement, but copyright law itself. The whole problem of “orphan works” is solely a result of the continual and ridiculous level of copyright expansion over the years that has created these so-called “orphan works.” It seems that the only person who actually seemed willing to discuss that was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who actually used the occasion to call for a repeal to the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, noting that it was a large part of the problem. While that has almost no shot of actually happening, it’s great to see at least one person in Congress recognizing that the problem was created by Congress (at the demand — and funding — of the entertainment industry).

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Comments on “The Real Problem With The Google Book Settlement Isn't The Settlement, But Copyright Law Itself”

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9 Comments
Matt (profile) says:

Re: Root cause?

I seriously doubt that there were payoffs, but Disney did participate aggressively in both the DMCA and the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. Someone (Karjala?) created a graph showing the dates of copyright term extensions as compared with the date that Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” (the first instance of Mickey Mouse singing in sync with the film) would enter the public domain under the status quo copyright regime. Consistently, as Mickey gets close to the public domain, he is “rescued” by Congress.

In an interesting aside, several people, beginning with Karjala, have demonstrated that “Steamboat Willie” was probably in the public domain at the time of publication, because the required copyright formalities were not observed.

Anonymous Coward says:

The “Sonny and Cher” act is a mere symptom, and not a major cause, of much that dots the current copyright law landscape.

The fundamental change took place on 1/1/78 when the Copyright Act of 1976 entered into force; a cardinal change in which after about 100 years the US finally agreed to join the Berne Convention…but to do so required it to amend copyright law in such a manner that it dumped the formalities that has been in place since the original copyright law was enacted in 1790.

A hallmark of the US system had been a series of formalities that required an author to opt-in in order to receive the benefits associated with copyright law. In contrast, Europe had long ago adopted a system that was largely devoid of any formalities.

With the loss of formalities the stage was set for the creation of the problem associated with orphan works, copyright terms expanded from 28 years (plus the opportunity if pursued to extend the term one time for an additional 28 years) to a term making many wonder if limited times was now set aside despite its constitutional imperative, and in 1989 one of the final blows when the mandate for formal copyright notice was eliminated altogether.

International harmonization has an allure to some, but in many regards it lay at the heart of much discussion pertaining to efforts at “patent reform”. I would like to think that the experience with copyright law would inform persons considering fundamental changes to patent law in the US. Unfortunately, what I would like to think and what will eventually likely happen will not be one in the same.

wvhillbilly (profile) says:

Copyright forever

If the entertainment industry had their way, everything would be copyright forever, there’d be no public domain and no such thing as fair use.

It’s not far from that now. Under current copyright law it’s not inconceivable for the term of copyright on a given work to last over 150 years, and if Disney is going to get another 20, 50 or who knows how long extension of term every time their copyright on Mickey Mouse is about to expire, then for all practical purposes the term of copyright is already “forever”.

And the scope of copyright is just as ridiculous. Anything that can be reduced to a tangible medium automatically receives a copyright as soon as that is done. Even your baby’s scribble on a sheet of paper! Even buildings can be copyrighted. Is it infringement to photograph your city’s skyline if such a building incidentally appears in the picture? Can individual bricks be copyrighted? To what extreme can these absurdities be carried out?

I think it’s high time copyright law be returned to its originally mandated purpose, scope and time limits, to provide authors a *limited* time monopoly for the purpose of encouraging new works, and allowing building on previous works as old copyrights expire, instead of the endless gravy train for the entertainment industry it has become.

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