Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Boyle: copyright black hole swallows our culture

James Boyle's latest article in the FT focuses on the Google Books settlement, which he explains would not be necessary if copyright law wasn't in such a mess. (The article is also available on his blog, where I first picked it up via my news feed reader).
"Librarians call it the 20th-century black hole. The overwhelming force is not gravity but copyright law, sucking our collective culture into a vortex from which it can never escape.

That culture includes millions of books Google wants to make available online. But many are concerned. The European Commission will hold hearings on Monday, while a US judge has extended the deadline for objections to a proposed US legal settlement."

James explains the key problems with the Google books settlement - Google's monopoly over commercially unavailable works and the index to all online books, lack of facility to download books, Google's ability to monitor your reading in unprecedented detail, lack of privacy protections etc. He goes on to conclude:
"What if the critics prevail and no settlement is reached? I would prefer us to fix copyright law so these issues disappear. But if we cannot do that, we need a second-best solution. Google’s escape module has flaws, lots of them, but it is better than staying in the black hole."
The day after the article appeared the EU Commission had their hearing and decided to oppose the Google Book settlement. James Boyle is scathing about their analysis:
"There are good reasons to worry about the Google Book Search Settlement, as I explained at length here. But of all of the reasons to oppose it, this utterly surreal statement is my favourite.

European officials fear that if the Google project goes ahead in the US, a yawning transatlantic gap will open up in education and research.

“Oh my God! The Americans are about to create a private workaround of the enormous mess that we regulators have made of national copyright policy! They will fix the unholy legal screwups that leave most of the books of 20th century culture unavailable, yet still under copyright! They will gain access to their cultural heritage — giving them a huge competitive advantage in education. This MUST BE STOPPED!! No one can be allowed to fix this for any other country because then we would be left alone stewing in our own intellectual property stupidity! We must forbid their progress in order to protect our ignorance.”

But wait, there’s more. If anyone does do it, it must be the state! (Which so far has failed completely to provide legal access to orphan works or commercially unavailable works, works that are unavailable because of… wait for it, wait for it, the state locking up our cultural heritage unnecessarily)"

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