Monday, March 8, 2010

The Google Books Settlement in Six Easy Bullet Points

Raise your hand if you've read all hundred sixty five pages plus sixteen attachments, in all its dense & legalistic glory, that is the currently proposed Google Books Settlement (G.B.S., a.k.a. Settlement 2.0).

Me neither.

But I have assembled a selection of nicely boiled down positions from pundits, thinkers, and self-interested advocates on several sides of the controversy, each of whom has read the G.B.S. enough times to give your average human an aneurysm.

First a capsule summary: Google is digitizing lots of books (about 10 million as of late 2009). About 15% are in the public domain (no copyright currently applies). Another fraction are actively for sale by publishers. About three-quarters are in copyright but out-of-print, perhaps & unevenly accessible in libraries and/or used bookstores. For many of these, it is difficult or impossible to track down the copyright holder to ask permission to digitize a work -- and so they're often referred to as "orphan works." The G.B.S. is most interesting and controversial in its establishment of a mechanism for setting access rules, purchase prices, and royalty distribution procedures for digitized copies of orphan works. Google, because it is investing significantly in the digitization of these millions of books, reserves a set of exclusive privileges vis-a-vis the activities covered by the settlement.

Now the half-dozen boiled down positions on the G.B.S.:

  1. The G.B.S. "would give Google a monopoly on the largest digital library of books in the world," and it's good for nobody except Google that this constitutes "a major restructuring of the book industry’s future without meaningful government oversight" (Berkeley law prof Pamela Samuelson explains in a post on O'Reilly-dot-com)

  2. Even if our cultural heritage is preserved in our libraries, "it is effectively lost if no one can access it easily" (says Sergey Brin, the twenty-somethingth richest person on planet Earth, and not incidentally Google's co-founder & technology president, in an New York Times op-ed)

  3. The G.B.S. interferes with control of content by its creators, which makes it a "deal with the devil" (says sci fi doyen Ursula Le Guin to the U.K.'s Guardian)

  4. "[...] a vast repository of books — millions upon millions of out-of-print books and many in-print books — will find a new home and new readers online" (said Author's Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken at the October 2008 press conference announcing the initial settlement)

  5. It's not about monopoly, it's about a return on Google's investment of "a large amount of money in digitizing public domain books and giving them back to libraries and users" (according to Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Book Search, in a May 2009 interview in Library Journal)

  6. Copyright is broken -- way out of synch with social good it ought to protect -- and the G.B.S. assures it'll stay that way, or worse (Stanford law prof Larry Lessig explains in a January 2010 piece written for The New Republic)

Whether the Google Book Settlement will resolve the stew of legal questions and social issues surrounding Google's colossal book digitization project is anybody's guess. Meantime the world waits for Judge Denny Chin to rule on the proposed settlement. It won't be over for a while. Jonathan Band, a specialist in technology & law, created a chart diagramming his best guess where the case might go following Chin's ruling, and it isn't simple, as this thumbnail version suggests.

What will the settlement mean to authors if it's approved in its current form? I'm not sure there's a simple answer to that question, despite Le Guin's certainty, cited above. I keep coming back to an idea I quoted in a post last month -- something Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, said during a session at the SF Writer's Conference in February: "An author's enemy is obscurity not piracy."

Much as I've admired Ursula Le Guin's vivid and politically nuanced speculative worlds, I can't help but compare posturing about the rights of content creators to the Horatio Alger myth. I wonder whether Le Guin's position might be protecting something idealized or rare, at the expense of something that is socially valuable in broader, more common contexts. That's not to say I'm against writers and artists and composers and performers getting paid for their work. Far from it. (Please, sir, can I have some more?) But, as I understand it, the G.B.S. doesn't get very much in the way of copyright holders who claim what's theirs. And it opens up avenues for access and sales of works that are no longer easily available or generating revenue for their creators. I also suspect that authors in a position to earn sums of any significance from their work aren't likely to make themselves so scarce that their hard-earned royalties go unharvested.

The pecuniary rights of content creators is just one aspect of the questions raised by Google's book digitization project and the legal issues that the G.B.S. proposes to settle, as the sampling of opinions given above demonstrates. My own musings tend toward the concerns articulated by Larry Lessig: we should be thinking as much or more about literary culture's value to the human endeavor as about individual property rights.

What do you think? Does the G.B.S. matter to you as a content creator? How, and why?

1 comment:

  1. It does matter to me, but at this point, it's kind of below my radar. At this point, it's all good, if you know what I mean. I worry, as you said, about obscurity, not so much loss of control over my product... which nobody is interested in!