Google, one of the world’s largest search engines, is in the news headlines once again. The current controversy involves the legality of Google’s proposed settlement agreement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers concerning the digitization of millions of books. Both the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers are groups that represent the interests of authors and publishers, respectively, in matters concerning copyright protection.

The settlement agreement is the result of a 2005 copyright infringement case against Google. The agreement includes a $125 million payout to the authors and publishers guilds as well as setting up a “Book Rights Registry” to allow copyright owners to receive compensation for digital books that are sold.

But, what’s the problem with that? What’s wrong with making books available to a large number of people through electronic means? Isn’t this a more technologically advanced society? According to three of Google’s biggest rivals–Amazon, Microsoft, and Yahoo–the agreement will allow Google to monopolize the entire digital book industry and have control over so called “orphan works.” Orphan works are materials where the author is extremely difficult or impossible to find. I presume that any revenue generated by orphan works would be retained by Google due to the inability to contact the author. This settlement agreement can have far-reaching implications for the rights of authors, both known and unknown.

This case involves the balancing of two interests: (1) the interest, or shall I say right, of authors to protect the products of their creative thought, and (2) the interest in making books, including outdated or hard to find books, available to the public “for the greater good.” Which interest should prevail?

Arguments on both sides of the case are very compelling. Gabriel Sticker, a Google spokesman, asserts that “the Google Books settlement is injecting more competition into the digital books space, so it is understandable why our competitors might fight hard to prevent more competition.” On the other hand, authors, while recognizing the obvious benefits to the public, argue that the costs to artistic thought and endeavors are too high.

If I had to weigh in on the issue (which I am), I would caution the court to carefully deliberate the merits and far-reaching implications of the settlement agreement. This agreement can have a drastic effect on future artistic thought and artistic works. Artists should have a sense of security knowing that their work is protected and adequately compensated. No one should have the fruits of their labor given to a non-laborer, at least not without their permission. If the artists’ rights and products are not protected, then they may have less of an incentive to produce high quality work. Why would people want to put all their effort and energy in a piece of work and not have it protected?

I completely understand that there is an interest in providing books to the public, especially books that are difficult to find or out of publication. But, I still believe that the products of artistic thought should be adequately protected. We should want artists to produce their absolute best work for the enjoyment of the public. This may not happen if they feel as if their work is stolen from them or they are not rightly compensated.

The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating this issue. It has until September 18 to make a statement on whether the proposed settlement agreement violates federal antitrust laws.

The future of “competition” in the area of digital books will be decided by a federal court during an October 7 hearing. So, stay tuned to find out.

Yoshana B. Jones

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