Sunday, June 10, 2007

Books: They're Not For Everyone

Google and 12 major universities are planning to scan and provide access to 10 million-ish books for ease of access by faculty, students, and the public... full access to non-copyrighted materials, limited access to protected stuff. As they say, fully consistent with copyright laws. The Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild is all set to sue Google about that. This would all be so much less of a big deal if rights were automatically released into the public domain when the author dies. The fact that this is not the case suggests that copyright laws are not, as they claim to be, strictly for the benefit and nutrification of authors... (I admit I'm being glib here, but seriously, any discussion about copyright law seems to come back to "How will the person who made this survive, if he doesn't get paid for it?!" as if the person who suggested a review of the law is personally willing to stab a starving writer directly in the eyes. This is the same thing seen regarding the internet radio business.)

Read minimally informative Reuters article here


Rufus said...

Do you know if book copyrights are of the same ilk as the Mickey Mouse laws. Every few years, Mickey is set to enter the public domain, so Disney gets the laws changed. I think that might be extending the rights for fiction indefinitely too.

I like the idea of digitizing books, although I have to admit that the few ones I've read online digitized my eyeballs.

Holly said...

Short answer:
Yes, there is only one copyright law.

Long answer:
Essentially, all creative works in any fixed media are automatically copyrighted from the moment of being fixed to any media, whether it is published or not. This is deceptively simple, as what the copyright gets you is the right to defend your profits yourself. A creator who holds his own rights must actually make a substantial effort to release a thing into the public domain during his own lifetime, or the right can be retained after death for a long time. Curiously, it seems that the person who owns the copyright can negotiate it in any way he sees fit, including releasing it into the public domain for a fixed period, and then recovering it later... but obviously that doesn't happen often, and would be incredibly difficult to enforce.

The copyright extension stuff had the effect of splitting copyright law in two branches--it extended private copyright by 20 years, so a privately held right is year of author's death + 70 years. (Example: Hemingway died in 1961, so The Sun Also Rises passes into public domain in 2031, instead of 2011, as it would've done under the old rules, assuming it's Hemingway's estate and not his publisher who holds the rights, which is probably not true.) That's not a big change.

The huge change regards works where the copyright is held by a corporation (which, legally, are defined as persons, but they are the Übermensch of personhood). Those rights endure for 95 years after the creation, or 120 years after first publication, whichever is shorter. This affects nearly all film, commercial music, works of art created for corporations, advertising, commercial magazines (not trade journals so much), and a stunning number of books, because movie concerns have been so aggressive about acquiring rights to books, "just in case." (And authors have been less than diligent in researching what copyright laws are/mean...)

Disney is notorious for refusing to re-release their movies and other materials, and it seems like it's actually a strategic move to re-manufacture it with sufficiently different execution as to warrant a fresh copyright, thus effectively extending their rights in perpetuity. At this point, they probably don't have to do anything else to maintain control of that stuff forever. (An amusing aside: Those legal alterations were also referred to as the Sonny Bono Law.)

Here is a link to a .pdf cheat-sheet about copyright law.

The good news about digital books is, people are actively working to make screen-reading so much better. Sony has made an "eReader" device with a black-on-white, matte, non-glare screen, that allows paging through, instead of scrolling, and is much more comfortable to read than a computer monitor. Bonus: It holds 80-200 books, depending on the memory chip you get, and the kind of books you like. There are some extremely cool flat technologies out there that are starting to be like printed material with movable ink (and printed speakers!)--they're working on things like interactive billboards, which is not noble, but advertising will fund R&D that benefits other fields. I love real books as much as anyone, but it's definitely time to make better use of the tech we have/could have!

Rufus said...

Well, I drool over the idea of reading books that I just can't find for free online. And I love the collection of Darwin's notebooks that are now online. But I think I'm going to hang on to the hard copies too. The post-apocalyptic Mad Max world is seeming more and more likely every day.