It appears that in the very near future, when you snuggle up in bed with a good book, you may be snuggling up with your computer as well. Enter Google, arguably the most prominent force in media and technology today. The technomedia giant is plowing ahead with its plan to scan and digitize millions of books and make them available to anyone with a computer. Google wants to create the ultimate digital library, Google Book Search, where users can find and read any book they desire–all online. For consumers, this instant book-finder database would present the simplest, most convenient way in history to find any and every book they choose, instead of searching through Borders, antique bookstores, or Amazon.com. Although the technological force behind Google Book Search seems unstoppable, the Department of Justice has thrown up a roadblock in the way of the project.

Last Thursday, the DOJ told Google, the Author’s Guild, and the Association of American Publishers that their recent settlement proposal concerning how the rights of authors and publishers would shake out in the digital book world fell alarmingly short of acceptable.

Try again, Google.

Negotiations have been in progress since Google was sued for copyright infringement in 2005 by authors and publishers that objected to Google scanning collections of books from universities and the New York Public Library. The government is understandably worried about potential antitrust and copyright issues that will arise in the future, and stated Google isn’t taking enough precautions in the settlement to address them. The recent settlement the DOJ rejected gives Google a seemingly unfair advantage in and a monopoly over the e-book market, which puts them in the direct line of fire for antitrust litigation. As it stands now, any potential competitor, like Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft, would have to negotiate with Google to gain access to millions of books (although Google has graciously offered to license the books to anyone who wants them–for a fee).

Hold it right there, says the DOJ.

The commonly-voiced fear about Google’s dominance is apparently now echoed by the government. Detractors think the settlement would create not a “cultural library” for the public, but a “commercial monopoly” for Google. In a letter to Judge Denny Chin in New York, who is presiding over the settlement, a group of academics stated, “the future of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books is too important to leave in the hands of one company and one registry that will have a de facto monopoly.” Not a particularly outrageous sentiment, is it?

There are problems on the copyright side as well. The agreement uses a class-action mechanism that attempts to address the outcome of future business arrangements with the authors and publishers, instead of resolving the existing disputes. Essentially, under the current settlement, if authors don’t want their books scanned and digitized they must “opt-out” of the agreement. Copyright law traditionally requires affirmative permission from authors before their works can be used, so the agreement represents a striking departure from traditional notions of author control (although this isn’t the first technology to undermine Federal Copyright law). Moreover, the class participants don’t represent the authors of foreign works, or account for the problems with “orphan works”–those where the author is either unknown or cannot be located. How will they get paid? If the author of an orphan work is later identified, what happens? These unanswered questions leave many authors understandably nervous.

However, there is still the compelling issue of the public interest in all this, which copyright law is designed to serve. The DOJ agrees, and recognizes that the public interest in “breathing life into millions of works that are now effectively dormant” is compelling enough that Google should be allowed to go forward with the project, within reasonable limitations. There are millions of wonderful books that are out of print but still under copyright protection, which essentially removes them from the hands of the public. Google could revive these works, which would indubitably “unlock the wisdom of collective knowledge.” The Author’s Guild states as much: “In our view, it’s best for everyone that out-of-print library books be made available through reasonable, market-based means to readers, students, and scholars.” They recognize that some sort of settlement is needed to make that happen, but how that settlement will affect the world of books in a fast-paced, technological future remains difficult to predict.

But what about public libraries and bookstores? Will Google effectively drive these entities into the ground and consolidate its book monopoly? Maybe. But the economic future of bookstores and libraries has been in peril for some time, probably due more to the Internet itself than the threat of Google e-books. Interestingly, the Stanford Libraries administrator, Andrew Herkovic, notes that the settlement includes a free license for every single library in the United States so that they can access the book database. He says opposition to the project is a “combination of ignorance and paranoia.” Stanford signed a deal last week with Google to participate fully in the project, and has already allowed the company to scan nearly 2 million of its nearly 9 million books. I myself can’t wait to discover some previously forgotten gems.

For the time being, it looks like Google Book Search is coming, despite copyright and antitrust concerns. If most people are like me, they will probably say, “Bring it on!”

– Lauren Kilgore

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One Response to Google e-Book Takeover Still Struggling, but Not Stopping

  1. [...] Books project has drawn criticism and concern from many quarters, see here, here, and here, but many of these critiques may not apply to this new project, which will offer only public [...]