Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Most Important Copyright Decision of This Century

Justice has been served.

New York federal district judge Denny Chin has ruled against the notorious Google Books settlement, which would give Google the right to sell electronic editions of virtually all books in existence without permission of the copyright owners.  This extraordinary power power grab had a lot of writers -- including yours truly -- feeling alarmed and outraged.

Here's the case in a nutshell:  Years ago, Google launched on a program to scan as many books as they could in order to make them available on the Web.  They cut deals with some major libraries and ran everything the libraries had through their machines.  Everything.  Books still in copyright not excluded.  These virtual books were put up on Google Books, where "snippets" of the in-copyright books were available to the on-line reader.  Because they were not offering payment to the authors for these snippets, the Authors Guild sued.

So far, straightforward.  But then the Authors Guild had a brainstorm.  They offered to settle the case by giving Google the right to publish and sell e-books, with the Authors Guild acting as the agency which would distribute royalties.  Google would make a fortune.  The Authors Guild would get a taste.  And -- as I understood their explanations -- the people doing the actual work, the officers, would be paid very satisfactory salaries.

I was at a presentation by AG and Google a year or two ago.  The Authors Guild people condescendingly explained that this took care of the "problem" of out-of-print books -- and that anybody who didn't want to participate could simply sign up with the program and then set the price of his or her books so high that nobody would buy them.  The Google rep explained that an "opt-in" program wouldn't work because the cost of registering books one by one would render the program unprofitable.

This agreement, had it been approved, would have changed copyright law entirely.

Fortunately, it was not.  Here's the abstract of the judge's opinion:

OPINION  05 Civ. 8136 (DC)
THE AUTHORS GUILD et al., Plaintiffs,
- against
GOOGLE INC., Defendant.

CHIN, Circuit Judge
Before the Court is plaintiffs' motion pursuant ,to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for final approval of the proposed settlement of this class action on the terms set forth in the Amended Settlement Agreement (the "ASAH). The question presented is whether the ASA is fair, adequate, and reasonable. I conclude that it is not.

While the digitization of books and the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many, the ASA would simply go too far. It would permit this class action -- which was brought against defendant Google Inc. ("GoogleI1) to challenge its scanning of books and display of "snippets" for on-line searching -- to implement a forward-looking business arrangement that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners. Indeed, the ASA would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission, while releasing claims well beyond those presented in the case.

Accordingly, and for the reasons more fully discussed below, the motion for final approval of the ASA is denied. The accompanying motion for attorneys' fees and costs is denied,
without prejudice.

You can find the entire decision here.  And you can read a news item about it here.

And a while back, I attempted some freehand German . . .

Not long ago, I titled a post "Ich Bin Ein Flussratt!"  Not stopping to reflect that coining an entire sentence in proper German might require a little more than Babelfish and long-faded memories of my college language requirement.  One in which I did the exact opposite of excel.

One of this blog's readers very kindly informed me that, mice and rats being generically female (regardless of individual gender), I should have written "Ich Bin Eine Flussratte!"  Which, however, would sound unidiomatic to a German speaker.  Therefore, he recommended the more common "Wasserratte," which, he pointed out, "would carry no negative undertones, being affectionally applied to anyone who, like Mole and Rat, loves messing about with boats."  He then went on for about a paragraph to explore related terms, from harbor masters to ballet rats.

God, I love hanging out with smart people.

My correspondent contacted me offline, probably for fear of embarrassing me in public.  I, in turn, haven't mentioned his name because I don't know if he wants it published.  But I am genuinely grateful.  Thank you.

I went back and changed "Ein Flussratt" to "Eine Flussratte" so the grammatical error would not be left hanging there.  I refrained from employing the (much more charming) "Wasseratte," in order to avoid making myself look like I know more than I actually do.


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