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.