Whoa, lord, sometimes you read things and you think, “man, it’s a shame more people who interact with Google every day (i.e. all of us) don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the Google books lawsuits.”
Google, meanwhile, made the bizarre argument that most writers don’t own their own copyright, no matter that the rights page of most books state rather exactly the opposite. But Google attorney Daralyn Durie told the judge that “Many authors contracted that right away to publishers.”
This seems to be such a fundamental misunderstanding of copyright law that either Durie is incompetent (and I have my days with Google where I think that’s possible) or Google is trying out a redefinition of copyright. And considering how small books are in the grand scheme of copyright issues Google might have, it seems to me that trying it out at the book level is a way to sneak a foot in the door.
See, the thing is that, yes, most commercial authors do indeed specify in the contract that the book is copyrighted in their name. But, yes, some authors, especially authors with non-trade publishers, do indeed find their books copyrighted in the name of the publisher. In real life, the difference between those two approaches matters barely a whit. The only person who can own a copyright is the creator of the work (let’s ignore work-for-hire-s right now). You can assign the administration of the copyright to whomever you want, including the publisher, and the publisher can copyright it in their name on your behalf, but if you’ve ever sat down to fill out the registration form, you know that, no matter how the book is ©whomevered on the copyright page, the government wants to know the most information about who the creator is and how the person claiming the copyright came to get permission from the creator to do so.
It is true that, in effect, when you sign a book contract, the publisher acts, for all practical purposes, like they “own” your copyright. But they don’t.
It’s a slight distinction, but an important one. After all, if the publisher really “owned” your copyright, the right would never revert back to you.
It’s easier to understand if we think of the creators as the bank and publishers as the home buyer. Yes, as long as you’re paying your mortgage and meeting the conditions laid out in your mortgage agreement, no one gives a shit if you say you “bought” a house or that you are a “home-owner” even though, technically, that puppy is the bank’s.
Copyright is similar. Even if the publishers say they own the copyright, they are really just holding it. And there are mechanisms by which the author can get it back.
So, the question becomes–why would Google want to advance an understanding of the nature of copyright that actually allowed ownership of copyright to be transferable? Why would they want you to be able to create something not covered by work-for-hire statutes that could be taken from you forever and you could never get it back?
Think of all of the ways you interact with Google–Youtube, Blogger, etc.–by creating content they benefit from. Right now, even if their EULAs allow them to use your content (mostly to power their search engine), they don’t allow Google to own the copyright on your work, which means they can’t straight-up monetize it without getting permission from you and, potentially, cutting you in.
But if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on this being the start of Google testing the waters to see how much courts are willing to accept that copyright ownership is indeed transferable.
And that should be something anyone who creates content and publishes it on the web keeps their eye on.