Thursday, April 16, 2009
Posted by D. Daniel Sokol
Randy Picker of the University of Chicago Law School has just posted The Google Book Search Settlement: A New Orphan-Works Monopoly?
This paper considers the proposed settlement agreement between Google
and the Authors Guild relating to Google Book Search. Google boldly
launched Google Book Search in pursuing its goal of organizing the
world’s information. Even though Google was sensitive to copyright
values, the service relied on mass copying and thus Google undertook a
substantial legal risk in setting up the service. That risk was
realized with the lawsuits by the Authors Guild and the Association of
American Publishers. The October, 2008 settlement agreement for those
suits will create an important new copyright collective and will
legitimate broad-scale online access to United States books registered
before early January, 2009.
The settlement agreement is exceeding complex but I have focused on three issues that raise antitrust and competition policy concerns. First, the agreement calls for Google to act as agent for rights holders in setting the price of online access to consumers. Google is tasked with developing a pricing algorithm that will maximize revenues for each of those works. Direct competition among rights holders would push prices towards some measure of costs and would not be designed to maximize revenues. As I think that that level of direct coordination of prices is unlikely to mimic what would result in competition, I have real doubts about whether the consumer access pricing provision would survive a challenge under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.
Second, and much more centrally to the settlement agreement, the opt out class action will make it possible for Google to include orphan works in its book search service. Orphan works are works as to which the rightsholder can’t be identified or found. That means that a firm like Google can’t contract with an orphan holder directly to include his or her work in the service and that would result in large numbers of missing works. The opt out mechanism - which shifts the default from copyright’s usual out to the class action’s in - brings these works into the settlement.
But the settlement agreement also creates market power through this mechanism. Absent the lawsuit and the settlement, active rights holders could contract directly with Google, but it is hard to get large-scale contracting to take place and there is, again, no way to contract with orphan holders. The opt out class action then is the vehicle for large-scale collective action by active rights holders. Active rights holders have little incentive to compete with themselves by granting multiple licenses of their works or of the orphan works. Plus under the terms of the settlement agreement, active rights holders benefit directly from the revenues attributable to orphan works used in GBS.
We can mitigate the market power that will otherwise arise through the settlement by expanding the number of rights licenses available under the settlement agreement. Qualified firms should have the power to embrace the going-forward provisions of the settlement agreement. We typically find it hard to control prices directly and instead look to foster competition to control prices. Non-profits are unlikely to match up well with the overall terms of the settlement agreement, which is a share-the-revenues deal. But we should take the additional step of unbundling the orphan works deal from the overall settlement agreement and create a separate license to use those works. All of that will undoubtedly add more complexity to what is already a large piece of work, and it may make sense to push out the new licenses to the future. That would mean ensuring now that the court retains jurisdiction to do that and/or giving the new Registry created in the settlement the power to do this sort of licensing.
Third, there is a risk that approval by the court of the settlement could cause antitrust immunities to attach to the arrangements created by the settlement agreement. As it is highly unlikely that the fairness hearing will undertake a meaningful antitrust analysis of those arrangements, if the district court approves the settlement, the court should include a clause - call this a no Noerr clause - in the order approving the settlement providing that no antitrust immunities attach from the court’s approval.