Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Watching the Wheels Go 'Round and 'Round

A sunny Wednesday morning in Austin, Texas. Birds are singing, dozens of kinds of flowers blooming in the garden, the doors open, the air fresh and sweet with the scent of Mountain Laurel. And just a few centimeters below the flowers blooming in the beds is rich and rotting compost, dead leaves and insects and molds, all thriving. Ah, life. What we call the good and the bad, it all keeps keeping on.
It's the same eternal keeping on of the Google Book Search project. It has its blooms and sweet breezes and its rot. The cycles seem longer and slower than my garden's, but things do roll around. Another one rolled around yesterday. The NY district court rejected the parties' settlement agreement. A limb got blown off a tree, so to speak. Everyone's talking about whether to let it lie, pick it up and maybe prune it a bit and root it, or just cut the whole tree down. But there's rejoicing that at least something happened. We are so impatient for the next phase. Even though it's never the end of anything, just another step down the path of ... keeping on keeping on.

I read the court opinion rejecting the settlement. I get it. Perhaps because I don't fear Google (all companies have their trajectory, up -- and down), or the processes that allow companies and individuals in them to test the limits of what's possible, and to succeed and to fail, my main reaction was simply recalling Steve Jobs' commencement speech to Stanford grads about 6 years ago, when he used the rejections he'd received in his own life to make the point that bad things aren't necessarily bad. What may seem bad to us can make things turn a different way, and we find something that we never would have found if we hadn't had the bad turn of events making it impossible for us to do what we thought we should do. Jobs strongly urged the grads not to give up, ever, on what they believed in, even if it was not "working," in that others rejected it. Maybe that's what's going on with copyright these days. Many people believe in ideas that others keep rejecting. But the believers keep turning away from the rejections, the failures, and trying other paths, even though it just doesn't seem to ever work. Actually, you might apply this theory to either side's efforts, and it seems to hold true. Things keep breaking, one way or the other, now good for one side, now bad, over and over.

In truth, it is not an all or nothing thing. Jobs does what he does in a world where many people still vehemently reject him and his ideas. But he found a path where he can do it. And we are fortunate to live in a world that allows him to be creative, along side those who disagree and create what they want too. Something like that might happen with copyright too. Creative Commons is a good example. It exists as a result of the failure of efforts to change copyright law through legislative and judicial channels. The architect of the effort that failed didn't give up; he just invented another way. And copyright law didn't change. People just have an easy way to exercise their choice now, to keep for themselves exclusively only a subset of the whole bundle of rights.

So, will the orphans just have to be lost -- a century's worth of works that no one will ever feel safe using? I really doubt that. There is a way. No one has invented it yet, that's all. But I won't be surprised if it's not what anyone is imagining today. Things have a way of taking very strange and wonderful turns. Even if they seem bad at some point along that way.

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