By LEWIS HYDE in The New York Times
Published: October 1, 2009
Three hundred years ago, Daniel Defoe offered a memorable image for the relationship between authors and their work: “A Book is the Author’s Property, ’tis the Child of his Inventions, the Brat of his Brain.”
The line comes from an essay Defoe wrote in support of the first-ever copyright act, the 1710 Statute of Anne. That law, one of the great inventions of human civilization, managed to do two good things at once: it gave writers ownership of their work, thus freeing them from patronage, and it limited the term of ownership to 28 years, thus giving the rest of us a public domain, a world of print we all may enter because no one owns it.
Defoe’s metaphor nicely points toward copyright’s public ends: both books and brats grow up; their relationship to those who bore them changes over time. Like a farmer’s children, books must help their author make hay until they come of age, whereupon they are free to leave home and participate in the larger community.
Orphan works are all those Brats whose copyrights are still active but whose parents cannot be found. There are millions of them out there, and they are gumming up the world of publishing. Suppose a publisher wants to print an anthology of 1930s magazine fiction. Copyright now lasts so long (a century in many cases) that the publisher must assume that there are rights holders for all those stories. Suppose that half the owners can’t be found. What should the publisher do? Its lawyers will advise abandoning the anthology: statutory damages for copyright infringement now stand between $750 and $150,000 per instance.
Of more than seven million works scanned by Google so far, four to five million appear to be orphaned. If Judge Chin approves the settlement in something close to its current form, the authors and publishers will let Google commercialize these works — sell them, display them online with ads, charge libraries for their use, and more. A portion of the money thus earned will go to Google outright; the rest will go to a new Book Rights Registry, where it will regularly be set aside for five years waiting for absent owners to claim it. At the end of each five-year period, all unclaimed funds will be distributed to the authors and publishers whose works the registry represents.