Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Not Fit to Print in the San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Chronicle had a good story last week about the Google Books settlement -- see http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/08/19/BUQH199RJU.DTL.

Here's my unpublished letter to the editor:

Thanks to James Temple for his lucid account of what many observers feel is the fatally flawed Google book-scanning settlement. Your reporter put his finger on what I think is the key problem with the deal: its incredible complexity and opacity.

I lead a slate of objectors to the proposed settlement of a somewhat similar class action by freelance writers over the reuse of previously published newspaper and magazine articles on electronic databases, without the rights holders' permission or compensation. A technical issue in that case is scheduled for an October hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court, which has named the case Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. (The defense group includes the parent company of the Chronicle.)

The Google and freelance cases both highlight the need for "compulsory licenses" linked to the kinds of standard royalty systems developed for the music industry upon the advent of recording equipment and radio. These are good for independent creators, for information consumers and for the diversity and vitality of our culture. Such arrangements need to be negotiated fully and openly through acts of Congress. The alternative "licenses by default," crafted privately and vaguely by fee-seeking litigation lawyers, are an abuse of the class-action system and they do not get the job done.


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