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Google's Fine Print
Cheers, with one asterisk, for a digital library.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

WHAT IS GOOGLE Book Search? A library? A bookstore? Or something else altogether?

Some call it Alexandria 2.0, and the comparison with the great library of antiquity is apt. Google has digitized millions of books, and if its proposed class-action settlement with their authors and publishers passes muster, these books -- formerly the province of college libraries and research institutions -- will be available to everyone. Google began digitizing books without the permission of copyright holders, claiming fair use. This provoked a class-action lawsuit on the part of authors and publishers, resulting in a settlement that offers many boons for the public. Books already in the public domain will be freely available, and those still under copyright will be available in a standard 20 percent preview. Google will also provide free public access to the entire online repository of content at terminals in nearly 20,000 public and university libraries across the country, only charging fees to print.

But wait, there's more! Google gives book rights holders tremendous control. They can decide what price to charge for their works, control the amount available in the free preview, and add and remove works from the online collection. And the settlement establishes a nonprofit organization, the Book Rights Registry, to locate content owners and serve as a clearinghouse through which they can receive payment from Google and negotiate with new entrants to the digital market.

What about books still under copyright whose owners have not been located -- so-called "orphan" books? Google's claim makes sense: Many rights holders will emerge once they see that their work has value, but it is also in the registry's charter to seek out these rights holders. As Google Book Search generates revenue for content creators, the owners of all but the least-accessed, least-valuable books will probably come forward.

So it's curious that Google felt the need to include a clause in the settlement to prevent the registry, negotiating on behalf of "orphan" books, from offering a better deal to any of the company's competitors within its first 10 years. Google's argument is that it performed a public service by setting up the registry, investing millions of dollars in what will be a non-affiliated, nonprofit organization. This hefty initial investment would not be required of future entrants to the market, leaving Google at a disadvantage. Protection would ensure a level playing field. But if the set of protected books encompasses only those so valueless that no one will come forward to claim them, it is baffling why protection from competition in this area would be valuable. If, on the other hand, locating book rights holders requires time and effort, and the market for digitized versions of these books is easy enough to enter that a competitor could offer a better deal, this clause would create a real barrier to competition.

Google's innovative efforts will enhance the world's access to knowledge, but that doesn't mean it deserves to have it both ways. Its settlement is in many ways better for consumers than the possible outcome of litigation. But the fact that what Google is doing is wonderful should not preclude the potential to do better.

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