James Grimmelmann, Jan 26, 2010
The deal that Google would get under the proposed amended settlement in the Authors Guild case is exclusive in one very important sense. Many out-of-print books are so-called “orphan works”: they’re in copyright, but their copyright owners can’t be found. If you or I start printing new copies of these books, we’d be copyright infringers, subject to statutory damages of up to $150,000 a book—or even jail time. Google, on the other hand, will be authorized to sell online copies of these books. That’s exclusivity: permission to do what is forbidden to others.
Some pro-settlement commentators have challenged this view. They believe that the market for electronic editions of orphan books is open to Google’s competitors.They make three principal claims: first, that the settlement creates no new entry barriers; second, that it explicitly enables the new Book Rights Registry to issue licenses to competitors; and third, that competitors could reasonably expect to obtain class-action settlements substantially identical to Google’s. All three of these propositions are wrong. In this essay, I will explain why.