Scanning the Horizon of Books and Libraries

A battle is raging over the future of
books in the digital age and the role that libraries will play. One
case now before a U.S. federal court may, some say, grant a practical
monopoly on recorded human knowledge to global Internet search giant
Google. The complex case has attracted opposition from hundreds of
individuals and groups from around the planet.

Google announced in 2004 its plan to
digitize millions of books and make them available online. Books in the
public domain would be made freely available. Newer books, published
since 1923 and for which copyright still exists, would still be online,
but viewable only in what Google called "snippets." Two groups, The
Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, sued,
alleging copyright violations. In October 2008, the groups and Google
announced a settlement to the lawsuits, dubbed the "Google Book
Settlement" (GBS). Google would pay $125 million and create the Books
Rights Registry, a new organization that would direct funds from the
settlement, and future revenue from book sales, to the copyright
holders. Google would be empowered to not only display works, but also
to become a massive, online electronic bookstore.

The settlement grants Google,
automatically, permission to scan, display and sell books that are
still in copyright but are deemed "out of print," and for which the
copyright holder cannot be easily found. These are referred to as
"orphan works." The status of orphan works has been the subject of much
debate, and legislation has been proposed to make orphan works more
available to the public. The GBS gives Google, and only Google, the
legal right to digitize and sell these works.

UC Berkeley Law professor Pamela Samuelson
wrote recently, "The Google Book Search settlement will be, if
approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern
era ... [and] will transform the future of the book industry and of
public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books."

Brewster Kahle co-founded the Internet
Archive, a digital library aspiring to provide "universal access to
human knowledge." It houses 150 billion Web pages, 200,000 movies,
400,000 audio recordings and more than 1.6 million texts. Kahle opposes
the GBS. Google scans large library holdings and returns to each
library digital versions viewable only on a limited number of computer
terminals that Google provides.

I asked Kahle how he sees the future of
libraries. "Libraries as a physical place to go, I think will
continue," he said. "But if this trend continues, if we let Google make
a monopoly here, then what libraries are in terms of repositories of
books, places that buy books, own them, be a guardian of them, will
cease to exist. Libraries, going forward, may just be subscribers to a
few monopoly corporations' databases." Kahle's version of the digital
library, which he and others are building collaboratively, is open and
shareable, without strings attached as with Google's deal. Kahle
co-founded the Open Book Alliance, which filed an opposition to the
GBS, equating the settlement with oil price-fixing schemes set up by
railroad barons and John Rockefeller's Standard Oil in the 1870s.

After Judge Denny Chin, who is presiding over the case, called for
public comment, opposition began flooding in from around the globe,
from sources ranging from the governments of France and Germany to
scores of publishers and authors and artists including folk singer Arlo
Guthrie and author Julia Wright, daughter of Richard Wright, who wrote
the classics "Black Boy" and "Native Son." Marybeth Peters, head of the
U.S. Copyright Office, called it an "end run around legislative process
and prerogatives." Judge Chin proposed a "fairness hearing" for Oct. 7
to decide on the Google Book Settlement.

On Sept. 18, the U.S. Department of
Justice filed an opposition brief. It read, in part, "the breadth of
the Proposed Settlement-especially the forward-looking business
arrangements it seeks to create-raises significant legal concerns. ...
A global disposition of the rights to millions of copyrighted works is
typically the kind of policy change implemented through legislation,
not through a private judicial settlement." Judge Chin announced a
delay of the hearing. The Open Book Alliance, along with many others,
applauded the delay and is calling for an open, transparent process
going forward to deal with the future of book digitization and the
issue of orphan works in a way that best benefits the public interest.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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