Monday, September 7, 2009

James Boyle on the Black Hole of California

James Boyle has a column (also here) in the Financial Times in which he discusses "the 20th century black hole" of super-long copyright terms, and the possibility that the Google Books settlement might ameliorate some of the Black Hole's effects by allowing orphan works to be available in a snippet-view, so that a researcher can at least get a sense of whether an orphan book would be useful to his research.

Boyle goes on to discuss some of the objections to the settlement. He finds that some of the objections have merit, in particular those brought by other digital libraries (who object that Google will have in effect a monopoly on the digitisation of the orphan works) and by those concerned with privacy (who object that Google will have a record of everyone's access to copyrighted books).
I agree with a lot of the criticisms. Privacy protections could be improved, the monopoly point is a real one and the rights of libraries should be expanded. Some of those points might be fixed before the agreement is ratified. Others may need subsequent scrutiny by privacy and antitrust regulators. Google has responded, persuasively, that many of the problems could be resolved if only we had a rational copyright law in the first place with a safe harbor for the use of orphan works.
Or if we had a shorter term of copyright, there would be fewer orphan works to begin with.

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