Sunday, April 05, 2009

Copyright and the big lie

The mainstream media are still trying to digest the proposed Google Books settlement. Of late, some of them have come to understand that one-sided news releases from Google’s lawyers might not be the full story.

There has been a gradual acknowledgment that Google is trying to rewrite copyright law to equate out-of-print with out-of-copyright. That is, just because a copyright owner chooses to take a book out of print does not mean the book is an orphan work. As long as the owner remains listed in the Copyright Office database with current contact information, it’s disingenuous to say the work has been abandoned.

But I have still not seen anyone with a large megaphone (unlike this little blog) address the central problem with all modern US copyright law, a problem created by Congress and the courts: The original purpose of copyright law is to encourage creation, not to provide annuities to corporations. Until we get back to that core principle, that it is the creator of a work that should benefit from copyright—not the corporation that strong-armed the rights away from that creator—people are going to remain confused about the correct moral course to navigate through these legal shoals.

What most people in the arts have in mind when they think about copyright is the right of the creator of a work to profit from it. What the publishers, entertainment conglomerates, and politicians have in mind when they think about copyright is the power of a corporation to coerce the creator to give up the right to profit in the long run in exchange for enough money to eat today, along with the resulting financial security for the corporation’s stockholders, who did nothing whatsoever to create the work in the first place.

So when we’re watching these debates in which people in expensive suits talk about their rights, they are talking about legal rights wrested from the grasp of the true possessors of the moral rights inherent in the act of creation.

European copyright law gets this. American copyright law doesn’t. Here, a corporation is a legal person with pretty much the same rights as a natural person—more rights in some instances.

I don’t know how much damage will transpire before politicians sit up and take notice. Time will tell.

1 comment:

L. Diane Wolfe said...

We the creators are basically guilty until proven innocent...

L. Diane Wolfe