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Google and the New Digital Future

Above all, the French and Germans condemned the settlement for sanctioning the “uncontrolled, autocratic concentration of power in a single corporate entity,” which threatened the “free exchange of ideas through literature.” To drive the point home, they both noted that Google has taken in more revenue than many countries—$22 billion in 2008.

The same points were made in a hearing before the European Commission on September 7 by the three most important international library associations: the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associates (EBLIDA), and the Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche (LIBER). In nearly identical testimony, all three stressed the danger that “a large proportion of the world’s heritage of books in digital format will be under the control of a single corporate entity.”

It was Google’s sheer power that gave them pause. They summoned up the prospect of a digital library of 30 million books that would cost $750 million, and they concluded that Google would exercise something close to hegemony in the book world. Therefore, they appealed to the European Commission to defend the interests of the public by preventing Google from abusing its power.

Some of these associations submitted similar statements to the New York court. So did hundreds of other groups and individuals. After reading through them, one has the impression of a sense of alarm gathering force and rising to the surface of a collective consciousness. As November 9 approached, it did indeed promise to be a day of destiny, when we would begin to see into our digital future and to face the forces that might determine it.

Where was the Department of Justice in the pre-November debate? It, too, submitted a memorandum for the court’s consideration. After months of investigating potential violations of antitrust law, the DOJ pointed to two serious difficulties: the possibility of horizontal agreements among authors and publishers to restrict price competition and the further restriction of competition by Google’s de facto exclusive rights to the digital distribution of orphan works. Competitors would be denied access to millions of orphans, the memorandum argued, because they would not enjoy the immunity from suits for copyright infringement that the settlement reserves to Google. Moreover, the settlement’s equivalent of a most-favored-nation clause would prevent all competitors from obtaining better terms than Google’s even if they could put together an attractive database. Instead of expatiating in the European manner on the danger to the world’s literary heritage, the DOJ warned about something concrete: the “risk of market foreclosure.”

What to do? Far from sounding hostile to Google Book Search, the DOJ acknowledged its potential to promote the public good and announced, “The United States does not want the opportunity or momentum to be lost.” The memorandum could therefore be read as a prescription for a way to save the settlement. It concentrated on the most hotly debated provisions—those concerning the approximately seven million out-of-print but in-copyright books, especially orphans—and it suggested the following changes:

  1. Require rightsholders of out-of-print books to participate in the settlement by opting in instead of operating from the assumption that they had agreed to participate unless they opted out. The shift to an opt-out default would remove Google’s control of books whose rightsholders cannot be identified or do not come forward.

  2. Do not distribute the profits from the sale of orphan books to the parties of the settlement (Google and the authors and publishers) but rather use the money to fund a thorough search for the unknown rightsholders, and extend the search for a long period of time.

  3. Appoint guardians to protect the interests of orphan rightsholders by serving on the registry.

  4. Find some mechanism by which potential competitors to Google could gain access to orphan works without exposure to suits for infringement of copyright. Presumably this would require legislation by Congress.

  5. Prevent Google from using out-of-print works in new commercial products without the owner’s permission.

The DOJ said it would continue to investigate the potential violation of antitrust laws, and it concluded with an unambiguous imperative: “This Court should reject the Proposed Settlement in its current form….” But its recommendations for an improved settlement did not go far—not nearly as far as those suggested by the governments of France and Germany and many other critics. The DOJ said nothing about the need for monitoring prices, protecting privacy, preventing censorship, providing representation of the public on the registry, and requiring full disclosure of Google’s secret data. If the DOJ encouraged Judge Chin to take a broad view of the settlement, it did not open the door wide.

The revised settlement, or GBS 2.0, released on November 13, reads as if Google and the plaintiffs took most of their cues from the DOJ’s memorandum. In a clear concession to the DOJ’s criticisms, GBS 2.0 provides that the Registry will include a court-appointed guardian to represent the rightsholders of unclaimed books. But it does not switch to an opt-out provision for such rightsholders—that is, according to GBS 2.0, any owner of a copyright of an out-of-print book would be deemed to accept the settlement unless he or she rejected it. Because millions of books, primarily orphans, fall into this category where the rightsholders are difficult to identify, Google alone would enjoy immunity from prosecution by any rightsholders who might turn up—and the exposure to litigation, which could easily reach $150,000 per title, would be enough to prevent any competitor from entering the field. Instead of providing a solution to the problem of orphan works, GBS 2.0 leaves Google in command of their commercialization, pending eventual legislation by Congress.

As to revenue from the sale of orphan books, GBS 2.0 complies with the DOJ’s insistence that the money not go to Google and the plaintiffs. Instead it will be spent in efforts to search for the unidentified rightsholders; and after being held for ten years, the funds will be distributed to charities determined by court order.

GBS 2.0 also follows the DOJ’s recommendation to abandon the most-favored-nation clause. Google’s competitors would be able to license out-of-print books in retail enterprises —that is, in selling individual works to consumers—although Google would maintain exclusive control of the institutional subscriptions to its gigantic database.

How the price of those subscriptions will be set remains unclear. GBS 2.0 has some language explaining the way its pricing algorithm will work, but it contains no effective mechanism to prevent price gouging, no provision for an antitrust consent decree that would empower a public authority to monitor prices, and no way to protect the public from excessive pricing should Google be taken over in the future by rapacious speculators.

GBS 2.0 does not therefore differ in essentials from GBS 1.0. It largely ignores the objections of foreign governments, except in one crucial respect: it partly meets the objections by narrowing the scope of GBS to books published in the United States and to countries with similar legal systems—that is, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Google will not display books published in countries like France and Germany, and it will give them representation on the Registry to protect their interests. Just what proportion of unclaimed works will now be excluded from the settlement by this concession remains to be clarified.

Will these concessions be enough to mollify Google’s critics outside the Department of Justice who are not parties to the settlement? Probably not, judging from a statement issued on November 13 by the Open Book Alliance, whose members include Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo:

By performing surgical nip and tuck, Google, the AAP [Association of American Publishers], and the AG [Authors Guild] are attempting to distract people from their continued efforts to establish a monopoly over digital content access and distribution; usurp Congress’s role in setting copyright policy; lock writers into their unsought registry, stripping them of their individual contract rights; put library budgets and patron privacy at risk; and establish a dangerous precedent by abusing the class action process.

What then is the outlook for the future? No one can predict the fate of the settlement as it bounces from court to court; but if the public good should be taken into consideration, one can imagine two general solutions to the problems posed by GBS, one maximal, one minimal.

The most ambitious solution would transform Google’s digital database into a truly public library. That, of course, would require an act of Congress, one that would make a decisive break with the American habit of determining public issues by private lawsuit. The legislation would have to settle ancillary problems—how to adjust copyright, deal with orphan books, and compensate Google for its investment in digitizing—but it would have the advantage of clearing up a messy legal landscape and of giving the American people what they deserve: a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century. But it is not clear how Google would react to such a buyout.

If state intervention is deemed to go too far against the American grain, a minimal solution could be devised for the private sector. Congress would have to intervene with legislation to protect the digitization of orphan works from lawsuits, but it would not need to appropriate funds. Instead, funding could come from a coalition of foundations. The digitizing, open-access distribution, and preservation of orphan works could be done by a nonprofit organization such as the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group that was built as a digital library of texts, images, and archived Web pages. In order to avoid conflict with interests in the current commercial market, the database would include only books in the public domain and orphan works. Its time span would increase as copyrights expired, and it could include an opt-in provision for rightsholders of books that are in copyright but out of print.

The work need not be done in haste. At the rate of a million books a year, we would have a great library, free and accessible to everyone, within a decade. And the job would be done right, with none of the missing pages, botched images, faulty editions, omitted artwork, censoring, and misconceived cataloging that mar Google’s enterprise. Bibliographers—who appear to play little or no part in Google’s enterprise—would direct operations along with computer engineers. Librarians would cooperate with both in order to assure the preservation of the books, another weak point in GBS, because Google is not committed to maintaining its corpus, and digitized texts easily degrade or become inaccessible.

This digitizing process could be subsidized as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus, and the overall cost, spread out over ten to twenty years, would be manageable, perhaps $750 million in all. Meanwhile, Google and anyone else would be free to exploit the commercial sector. The national digital library could be composed from the holdings of the Library of Congress alone or, failing that, from research libraries that have not opened all their collections to Google.

Perhaps other solutions could be devised. If the court did not resolve the Google Book Search problem on November 13, at least it had the potential to concentrate minds and stimulate public debate. We are agreed that something must be done to improve the nation’s health. Why not do something to enrich its culture?

—November 18, 2009

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