May 6, 2009
Library Associations Have Their Say in Court on Google Book Settlement
The American Library Association (ALA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has filed a brief as comments in the proposed settlement between Google and publishers and authors. My initial thought is that the library associations are doing the right thing by raising issues of fairness in pricing, access, security and privacy from the user perspectives, and other egalitarian points in promoting access to the book collection, they forget that this suit against Google was brought mostly for financial reasons by the publisher and author trade associations. Yes, there is this big chunk of previously unavailable knowledge (or barely available), and this collection represents something unique. But do these facts transcend the commercial aspects of the settlement between the parties and turn this database into a public service? I don't think so.
The comments filing covers the lack of competition aspect, something news reports have suggested that the Department of Justice has interestas well. Consider, however, that Microsoft tried the same project and gave up, leaving the scanning field completely to Google. With 9% or so of the search market, Microsoft wasn't going to gain additional share through a book scanning project. It is true that a worthy competitor wouldn't want to take on Google's head start. But were there even worthy competitors out there who would commit the funds, equipment, manpower, and legal team to do something like this? Yahoo never tried. Other well capitalized technology companies such as IBM weren't interested. Even West or Lexis never bothered to distribute beyond what was in their own publications. Librarians have questioned the cost of access to these databases, even at the subsidized institutional prices, though the academic market bears it. Look at West and Westlaw. Their vast collection of legal material is locked up by contract exclusively for law schools. Pity the poor political science or business law faculty member who needs access to a range of cases or statutes. They have to be content with LexisNexis Academic for that assuming the institution even bothers to buy access. West via Westlaw does not compete in the broader academic market and they (cheerfully?) have no response to LexisOne. As for privacy concerns, law librarians have already traveled that path. Lexis and Westlaw issue passwords to students, staff and faculty. Can they track what materials are used by the academic community? We seem to accept that capability in return for buying the service.
Is the market for broader information any different? I don't know, but I tend to think not. Publishers and authors want to make money from their works, and see the Google scanning project as an avenue for that end. The filing by the library associations wants to turn the Google scanning project into a public utility, with regulated rates and oversight. They point to the section of the Settlement that allows Google to withhold 15% of the total scans and wonder whether the list of titles and the mechanism for withholding them will be made public. Can they be challenged? Will countries with different perspectives and agendas pressure Google into suppressing books that go against those agendas? A library perspective is information for everyone. An economic perspective suggests information for those with cash. The majority authors and publishers know where they stand on that one, otherwise why bring a suit at all? Why not work with Google for the public good?
I think the Court would be wise to take the concerns of the library associations seriously, but within the economic context in which the suit against Google was raised. In this society economics tends to trump principle. I believe it would take an act of Congress to do otherwise. In the previously mentioned concern of other countries suppressing information, Congress held hearings and raked executives through the coals over cooperation with non-democratic governments. No legislation was passed. There is no groundswell now to pass legislation that affects search engine business overseas.
In summary, I can agree with the ideas of the library associations in their filing, assuming Google can be characterized somehow as a library. It is not. The lawsuit transformed Google into one of the largest electronic bookseller in the world, despite the fact that the source materials came mostly from large academic library collections. While I can agree with the concerns raised in the brief, I wouldn't put a lot of money on the degree with which they will come to fruition in the final implementation.
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