Google Backs Out Of NewsHour Debate With Open Book Alliance, And I Don't Blame Them

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There was lots of news late last week about a proposed modification to the Google Books settlement agreement. Today there was going to be more news – a televised debate about Google Books on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour. But, alas, Google backed out.

The details are of the fight are subtle, but all the hubub centers around what’s broadly called orphan works – where it’s hard to figure out the author/rights holder of a given work. Depending on how broadly you define orphan works, they make up between 2 million and 8 million of the 15 million or so books that have been published in the U.S. And while this is the apparent battleground, the real fight is over the whole Google Books scheme.

Google says they’re saving humanity, or something close. Which is probably a stretch. Their opponents, fueled by donations from Google competitors (among others), says Google wants to “establish a monopoly over digital content access and distribution; usurp Congress’s role in setting copyright policy; lock writers into their unsought registry, stripping them of their individual contract rights; put library budgets and patron privacy at risk; and establish a dangerous precedent by abusing the class action process.”

As usual, Paul Carr sorts it all out for us. And while the details of a legal settlement on how the rights around digitized copies of old printed books aren’t exactly riveting, the players involved sure do make it a lot of fun to watch.

…Because the Open Book Alliance isn’t led by just anyone. No, one of the guys in charge over there is Gary Reback (pictured above). The man who many credit with taking down Microsoft. I interviewed Reback a few months ago, and Google Books was one of the topics we discussed.

Reback was set to go on NewsHour to debate Google Books with the engineer that does most of the talking for Google – Dan Clancy. Both are quite able to defend their positions intelligently. Or at least, they would have. Clancy never showed up, leaving Reback at the studio, alone.

Why did Google back out? According to Reback, Google told the show that they didn’t want to put an engineer against a lawyer on TV: “They said I was a lawyer but Clancy was not, so the debate would be unfair.” Reback says that’s ridiculous. “Clancy goes around peddling his story and appearing on panels with lawyers all the time,” he said (which is true). Reback also notes that “Google has hundreds of lawyers, dozens of whom have worked on this. Surely, they could find a lawyer to debate if they were afraid to put Clancy up” (which is also true).

For their part, Google says they aren’t interested in debating the legal niceties of Google Books on broadcast television. Gabriel Stricker, head of search communications at Google, says that they were told Harvard profession Robert Darnton would be their opponent on the debate (his thoughts on Google Books are here, and wow he desperately needs an editor), and that Reback was added at the last minute. When they found out about the change, Stricker says, it was too late to find an appropriate Google attorney as a replacement.

Stricker says Google wants to have a “philosophical and ideological conversation about Google Books” in front of a mainstream TV audience, not a legal debate. And he adds “the fact that Gary finds it necessary to try to create conflict surrounding the existence of the conversation is exactly why we would prefer not to have a conversation with him.”

And I don’t blame him. Reback is the last person I’d want to debate anything with on TV.

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