Google's argument that "The overall benefit to society of publishing information outweighs the benefit to individual companies from restricting it" was the subject of an earlier post here. Now the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz, is getting into the act with a column in the Wall Street Journal buying into the logic of the Google book settlement and passing along the claim that there are "60% of books—some 10 million—that are under copyright but out of print and unavailable in any medium." With all respect to Mr. Crovitz (a wonderful guy) and to Google (a wonderful company), that's an exaggeration. Those out-of-print works may not be available free on the internet or available for purchase new at Amazon.com, but many of them are in libraries, and many are also available at used book store aggregator sites like the truly awesome bookfinder.com, with its inventory of 150 million books.
The solution touted by Mr. Crovitz's source, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, is "returning to earlier laws that required copyright holders to reconfirm their interest periodically by registering ownership, for a modest fee or no fee. If no one claims the right, the book would pass into the public domain and be available to Google or its competitors." This seems to me (as a content creator) to tilt the playing field unreasonably toward Google and away from content creators. A property-rights regime that is genuinely respectful of property rights would leave the rights with the creator and his heirs indefinitely without imposing bureaucratic obligations on them, and without making the failure to meet the bureaucratic obligation the trigger for the surrender of the property right from the individual to a large, powerful corporation. What's next, a law requiring individual bicycle owners to register their bikes with some central authority every few years, with the consequence of failing to do so being that Google employees and shareholders would get the right to extract the bicycles from the garages and ride them themselves? After all, 60% of bicycles are sitting in garages unavailable for use.