Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rejecting Google Books...

It's been the central issue since the World Wide Web's inception, and it's at the forefront again... how to strike the right balance between ownership and access.

On Tuesday, a federal judge rejected the settlement between Google and a group of authors and publishers regarding "Google Books". In 2005, Google launched the project in order to scan and digitize the world's libraries and make the content searchable, only to have the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sue them for copyright infringement. Ultimately, they came to an agreement whereby Google would sell access to its database and take 37% of the profits, while the authors and publishers would receive the remaining 63%.

This sounded great in theory, however Judge Denny Chin rejected the agreement for good reasons. First, as this New York Times editorial argues, one company should not have monopoly access to our "common cultural heritage". Basically, because the agreement only sets the terms for Google, and not rivals like Amazon or Microsoft, it would grant Google de facto exclusive rights and legal protections that would be denied to its competitors. Second, the Authors Guild, which has about 8,000 members, does not represent many writers. If any decided they wanted to make their works available under different conditions, or even make their works available free of charge, unfortunately this agreement would have set the terms for them as well. Third, "orphan books" - meaning copyrighted books whose rightsholders cannot be found or identified (yes, this happens frequently) - would automatically fall under Google's sole domain, granting the company, again, the exclusive right to digitize and sell access to those books without being subject to copyright infringement lawsuits. Judge Chin made a specific point to highlight the serious anti-trust concerns this would raise.

There are two competing values in play here. On the one hand, universal access to knowledge is a social good - it empowers individuals and helps level the proverbial playing field. On the other hand, authors and copyright owners ought to be able to make decisions (within reasonable limits) regarding the fate of their works. Most people would agree on both of these core values of free societies. The problem is that, in this case, these values are in conflict with one another.

It's ironic. Here is Google, leading the way in terms of providing society with greater access to literary knowledge, yet, by doing so, they are simultaneously becoming the greatest perceived threat to that same access.

For what it's worth, I agree completely with the Times editorial. Google's dream of making all the books in the world available to everyone should absolutely be pursued... just not by Google. Rather, instead of our common cultural heritage being controlled exclusively by one corporation, we should build a digital public library.

Call this the "non-commercial option". A national digital public library could be funded through a coalition of foundations and by voluntary donations. The library would respect copyright, of course, and only include those works which are in the public domain and those whose authors grant permission to make them available. Indeed, most other countries in the industrialized world are already doing this.

It is possible to strike the right balance between ownership and access. If successful, we all benefit.


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