I spent Friday at a fascinating conference at the Columbia University Law School, on the subject of (what else?) the Google settlement. Lead counsel from all three parties, lots of other lawyers, several princpals, publishers, authors and librarians were there.

I learned something important that at some level I already knew.

The most important single thing about the Google settlement, simultaneously its greatest achievement and among its most vexing features, is the treatment of orphaned works (in James Grimmelman’s witticism, “zombie” works). The problem, as we all know, is that there are millions – no one quite knows how many – of works that may or may not be in copyright and for which the rightsholder(s) may or may not exist and may or may not be aware of their rights. Our ability to use these works is thus much compromised: we run the risk that a copyright holder will appear and claim damages. As we all know, Congress’s efforts to make it easier and safer to use orphaned works have failed. Moreover, the most recent draft legislation would have imposed difficult and costly burdens on a potential user by requiring the would-be user to make substantial efforts to find any potential but unknown rightsholder.

Along comes the Google settlement, which solves at least part of the problem, for Google and the Book Rights Registry, at one fell swoop. (Only part of the problem, because works that were not registered with the copyright office will likely not be in the settlement and yet may be just as orphaned as those that are registered.) Under the settlement, revenues generated by orphaned works will be held in escrow for for five years, allowing time for a rightsholder to come forward. It’s a moving window; if the rightsholder comes forward in year 22, she gets revenues from year 17 on. Thus the products that Google sells to individuals and institutions can include, among other works, millions of orphans (zombies). Without the orphans, the great public benefit of the settlement – the ability to find and use much of the literature of the 20th century in digital form – would be much diminished.

At the same time, the disposition of the revenues attributed to orphaned works is one of my least favorite parts of the settlement. The unclaimed revenues go first to support the operations of the BRR, and then, after that, will be used for charitable purposes consistent with the interests of publishers and authors. As the head of a library that has lovingly cared for these works for decades, the notion that the fruits of our labors (and those of many others in many libraries) redound to the benefit of entities that did not write, publish, or curate these works sticks a bit in my craw. So I hope that authors, publishers, the court, and the public will be vigilant in making sure the BRR does not squander the unclaimed revenues on mismanagement, high salaries, and the like. The “charitable purposes” should be an objective, not a remainder for unclaimed funds.

The settlement also gives Google and the BRR, and no one else, the right to use the orphaned works in this way. A number of commentators, have noted problems that may arise from Google’s privileged position in this regard. But there is an obvious solution, one that was endorsed at the Columbia meeting by counsel for the Authors Guild, the AAP, and Google: Congress could pass a law, giving access to the same sort of scheme that Google and the BRR have under the Google Settlement to anyone. And they could pass some other law that makes it possible for people to responsibly use orphaned works, while preserving interests for the missing “parents” should they materialize. Jack Bernard and Susan Kornfield have proposed just such an architecture to “foster” these orphans. Google has also made a proposal that would be a huge improvement.

Given that the parties to the suit, libraries, and the public would all benefit from such legislation, it should be a societal imperative to pass it. I look forward to AAP, the Authors Guild, and Google lobbying and testifying in favor of such legislation. I’d be happy to be there, too.