At first glance, it seems to me that this big settlement announced today between Google and the book publishers regarding Google Book Search sounds a lot like an ASCAP model for online book transactions. Specifically, of the key provisions of the agreement, it’s this last one about the Book Rights Registry that makes me think of ASCAP:
Compensation to Authors and Publishers and Control Over Access to Their Works – Distributing payments earned from online access provided by Google and, prospectively, from similar programs that may be established by other providers, through a newly created independent, not-for-profit Book Rights Registry that will also locate rightsholders, collect and maintain accurate rightsholder information, and provide a way for rightsholders to request inclusion in or exclusion from the project.
That’s basically what ASCAP does today, and I think this sounds like a pretty good plan for books going forward. But I also find myself wondering: Could this be the beginning of a move toward a more comprehensive online collective licensing system for other types of content as everything moves online. For example, could this model work for music? EFF has argued it could. And some in the music industry appear to be moving in that direction. (Talk about your strange bedfellows… EFF and the RIAA potentially on the same side of an issue!)
Of course, you’d need to get a lot more companies than just Google to play ball to make it work for music — specifically, you’d need all the ISPs on board. For books, by contrast, the reason today’s deal will likely work is because Google has been the only online operator with the scale and interest in putting the entire contents of so many books online. But all music is already online and much video is heading online, too. So, I think it would be much, much more challenging to make collective licensing work for music and video the way it appears it might work for books. (We’d probably need compulsory licensing instead, which I am no fan of). The key to these voluntary collective licensing systems is large, trusted intermediaries that can clear a massive volume of transactions. Google can do that for books as today’s deal makes clear. It will be interesting to see if others suggest that music and video can and should work the same way. I’m skeptical, and I’m also a bit hung up on some fairness issues about how it would work, which I might touch upon in a future essay.
But I’m no copyright expert so I’d be interested in hearing what my colleagues and others think.
Update: Looks like someone beat me to the punch with the ASCAP comparison. I just starting reading through my RSS feed and finding reaction from others and came across Mathew Ingram’s post arguing that, “In effect, Google is setting up a body that does what ASCAP and similar groups do for musicians.”