Settling The Google Book Debate and Other Unicorn Fantasies

Despite ongoing legal wranglings, Google is still on the offensive against critics of its book settlement. The latest salvo is an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. He goes over much the same ground that he articulated at a meeting with reporters on Wednesday: Google has done the hard work of digitizing more than 10 million books, while its competitors who oppose the settlement like Microsoft and Amazon have done nothing. “I guess they scanned 15 books,” Brin quipped at the meeting.

The main objection to the settlement is that it will give Google a monopoly on out-of-print, or orphan books. Brin swats that argument in his Op-Ed, writing:

The agreement limits consumer choice in out-of-print books about as much as it limits consumer choice in unicorns.

In other words, there is no choice in out-of-print books because for the most part they are simply not available other than in large research libraries.

Brin also points out that the settlement does not impose a compulsory license on unclaimed works, only a default license which can later be changed. Furthermore, he argues, as he did at the meeting, that the settlement is not anti-competitive because it does not preclude other companies from striking similar deals. In fact, it sets a precedent for them to do so.

Everyone agrees that digitizing these books is a good idea, and will help unlock the information hidden away in them. Brin quotes liberally from out-of-print books in his Op-Ed to make his point.

But Google is not digitizing these books so it can sell copies of them. They are out of print for a reason. There is no market for them as whole books. Their value lies in cutting them up into snippets and relevant excerpts, and showing those snippets along with search ads to people looking for related information. The reason they are valuable to Google is because they are a rich source of high quality information that will improve its search results, and in fact give them an information advantage over other search engines without equal access to the world’s books.

Brin’s attitude is that if Microsoft or Amazon want a similar corpus of digital information, they should go scan their own out-of-print books. Of course, there are other efforts such as the not-for-profit Internet Archive’s (which has scanned 1.6 million books), but they don’t have the same resources as Google.

The response, however, would be that the settlement gives Google a free pass against any legal liability for orphan works still under copyright protection.

On Wednesday I asked Brin, why not just open the settlement to other book digitizers to afford them the same protections? He said that would be “legally impossible.” After all, those rights aren’t Google’s to extend. But what about the Author’s Guild? Would it be willing to apply the same terms to other companies and book digitization efforts to help open up and distribute out-of-print books even further? How great would it be to be able to download millions of such books for free (or a token fee of $1) onto your Kindle and other devices?

Everybody wants to see that world happen. But first this legal hurdle must be overcome, and second other organizations must catch up in their book scanning efforts or Google should do the right thing and choose to license its digital book database to other companies that don’t compete in search like Amazon. Making all the world’s books accessible in digital form through more than just Google doesn’t have to be a unicorn fantasy.

Photo credit: Flickr/Eggybird