Nominally, copyrights in the United States are for a limited duration. But the corporations that own valuable, decades-old copyrights—think Mickey Mouse and Batman—don’t want to see those copyrights expire. So they’ve gotten good at lobbying congress to retroactively lengthen copyright terms in order to ensure that Mickey and Bruce Wayne will continue to be valuable commodities forever.
This is bad on its own terms, but it also has some really perverse consequences. After all, most decades-old works aren’t valuable. And most aren’t owned by large ongoing business enterprises. But even though this vast back catalog consists of works with little monetary value, they could still each individually be of interest to some people and collectively they’re of enormous use. But right now, if you stumble across something old and forgotten, it’s often not clear how you would even go about getting the rights to it. Oftentimes a person may not even know that he or she is the heir to an obscure copyright owned by a great-uncle or some such.
At any rate, Google is touting the recent settlement agreement around Google Book Search as a solution to this problem. On the one hand, via Google’s arrangements with libraries, copies of copyrighted-but-out-of-print books will be available on Google Book Search. And on the other hand “the settlement creates an independent, not-for-profit Book Rights Registry” to help make it easier for rights-holders to make their claims and would-be users to find rights-holders. What’s more, “As authors and rightsholders claim their books under the settlement, information about what books have been claimed and who claimed them will be made publicly available, allowing others to take advantage of this information.”
This does sound like a real step forward to me. Still, it’s a pretty goofy kludge to solve a problem that really doesn’t need to exist. There’s no public interest rationale for retroactive copyright extensions. They just suit the interests of a relatively small number of copyright-owning firms, and they create a huge set of problems.