Tuesday, March 22, 2011

NO to Google Books Settlement. Hurray for academics, access to knowledge and democracy!

Today Judge Chin released a judgment Declining the Google Books Settlement. This is a victory for academia, access to knowledge, and democracy - here is why.

The Google Books Settlement is an attempt to settle a class action suit brought by some authors and publishers objecting to the Google Books project. The Google Books project per se involves digitizing library collections to provide searching for in-copyright works with fair use snippets and free access to out-of-print works, a very worthy project. The Settlement, however, had some major flaws, as Chin's judgment notes.

One significant flaw is that the plaintiffs do not represent all authors, and objections by academic authors are noted in particular: "The academic author objectors, for example, note that their interests and values differ from those of the named plaintiffs: "Academic authors, almost by definition, are committed to maximizing access to knowledge. [emphasis added]. The [Authors] Guild and the [Association of American Publishers], by contrast, are institutionally committed to maximizing profits."" (p. 28-29, quoting Samuelson). Comment: hear, hear!! Kudos and thanks to the academic authors and authors groups who took the time to express objections.

Several other flaws in the settlement suggest that turning down the Settlement is a victory for democracy as well. The settlement is described as "an attempt to use the class action mechanism to implement forward-looking business arrangements that go far beyond the dispute before the Court in this litigation." (p. 21). Antitrust concerns (an effective Google monopoly on orphan works) are cited as well. The Settlement brings in involuntary participants, including owners of copyright in orphan works and foreign works; the objections of foreign nations are noted. As the Settlement notes, issues about copyright should be addressed by Congress, not through this approach.

For the future, let's hope that fairer and more appropriate approaches to copyright, including limiting terms (can we go back to 14 years, renewable once please?) and addressing orphan works is brought up in legislatures and international copyright venues, soon.

As for publishers and authors of works that are IN copyright, instead of suing people, why not focus on getting these works digitized and available through attractive business models such as free online / pay for print on demand?

For other works of mine of this topic, see:
Postscript: THANKS to Google and participating libraries for pushing the envelope. Clearly, more work is needed, but progress to date is already showing the potential and articulating some of the challenges still to be overcome.