January 20, 2010
Open Book Alliance Appeals to Congress in Google Book Settlement
The Open Book Alliance has sent a letter to Congress suggesting an alternative to the Google Book Settlement. They advocate the creation of a digital public library based on the following principles:
- Large scale book digitization efforts must recognize their public utility and and foster competitive instead of exclusive markets.
- Long-term benefits for consumers must be prioritized and promoted over isolated commercial interests
- It must be done in a way that respects authors’ rights and copyright.
- The conception of this promise must be developed in the open and grounded in sound public policy instead of through a private settlement that bypasses the responsibilities of our elected officials
As lofty as these principles are, they are also self-serving to the position of the Open Book Alliance and its members who are competitors to Google. As to the first principle and the issue of competitiveness, lots of people have the same technology and likely access to the same libraries and same materials that Google scanned. No one is stopping anyone from scanning and respecting author's rights. I don't see any other well capitalized actors rushing to compete with Google's project or stepping up to fund the proposed digital public library. European efforts at digitizing books and other cultural artifacts have fallen short on funding even though governments there whole heartedly support the concept that Europe should be responsible for its digital preservation and not Google.
As to respecting author's rights and copyright, yes, this is a nebulous issue when it comes to in-copyright works for which copyright holders cannot be identified. But should that in any way stop Google and the publishers from agreeing on the scanning and distribution of out of print works where rights are not an issue? The publishers and authors who sued could have maintained suit merely on the principle and not entered into settlement talks. The potential to tap these works as a new revenue stream must have proved irresistible in contravention to the public good.
The last principle appeals to Congress to step in. This is really an attempt to slow down or stop the Settlement. Congress took seventeen years to pass the Copyright Act of 1976. How long would it take Congress to revamp the copyright laws to accommodate a public digital library covering in-copyright works? There are no bills in the current Congress that have the words "digital books" or "ebooks" as a term, at least as reported by Thomas. Despite rumblings here and there by individual members, there is no urgency on the part of Congress to address the Google Book Settlement, at least before the fact. Even the Justice Department in its filing said it was salvageable from a competition standpoint and is working with the parties and the Court to that end.
There are serious issues regarding how library and other cultural materials are digitized and preserved, especially in the context of Google's actions and the reaction to it. My inner Ayn Rand tells me that the positives outweigh the negatives for the Settlement to go through, unless I'm a competitor. The full text of the letter is here. [MG]