Thursday, March 31, 2011

Guest Blogger, Dan Cabrera: The Books Are All (Copy)Right: A Close Look At The Google Books Settlement

The battle over the fate of digital books rages on. Last week a judge rejected the Google Books Settlement, a proposed agreement between Google and numerous authors whose works were digitized and added to an online database operated by the search giant.

Before the Settlement, a class-action lawsuit had been filed against Google claiming that the company’s initiative of providing a searchable catalog of every book ever published violated copyright law. Most of these books were “orphans,” or books with no clear copyright holder. This includes older and out-of-print works and academic titles. The issue of public domain, however, is a different story. (To find out more about copyright laws and public domain, check out the embedded links. Oh, and this one too!)

What’s the big deal, then? By all appearances it seems that Google is doing the world a service by digitizing books that have fallen off the map. Google’s unofficial motto of “Don’t be evil” seems to fit nicely with their efforts to preserve the world’s literature. But there’s a big distinction between simply not being evil and actively being good. In this case, Google may be committing a sin of omission.

Or rather, a sin of excessive inclusion.

Google’s aim is to add every book—ever—to its online index. One of the main problems the authors, agents, publishers, and librarians have with Google’s efforts is that the company has chosen an opt-out feature. The feature, part of the Google Books Settlement, means authors and copyright holders would have to notify Google if they didn’t want to be included. Kind of like the Do Not Call registry or a subscription you try out but don’t realize you have to cancel after the trial period. It makes life easier for Google, but would mean constant vigilance on the part of publishers. In his ruling last week, Judge Denny Chin noted that an opt-in feature, where Google would have to wait for permission before scanning a book, may be a good compromise. Yet Google may not want to wait.

While Judge Chin remarked that he believed in an accessible, digital library of all books, he was sure to point out that copyright issues are driving this case. When orphan books are added to the Google library, Google often becomes then the sole distributor of that work since no one else seems to be stepping up. This creates a monopoly of sorts, an issue in itself, but it also returns us to the issue of copyright and who owns what.

Copyright is certainly a tricky problem. According to the U.S. Copyright office, an author retains the copyright for his or her lifetime plus seventy years. Granted, there are many facets to that rule, and if copyright was simple there wouldn’t be legions of copyright lawyers.

Copyright is an important part of protecting your intellectual property and making sure an artist or author gets recognition. But for many, recognition isn’t as important as remuneration. Everyone wants to make money off their ideas, and whether that means getting paid for your patent of a motorized ice cream cone or from copyrighting your Elvis sighting, selling your exclusive product is a safe way of bringing in the dough.

The question on many people’s minds: Is Google breaking copyright law?

So far, no lawsuit has been filed expressly for that reason, though part of the original claim against Google hinted at copyright infringement. Google published snippets of claimants’ scanned books, which caused quite a stir with authors.

The Google Books Settlement poses some interesting ideas about copyright and open access. Right now, major publishers don’t seem to be up in arms about Google’s plans. After all, Google has its own ebook store, similar to Amazon and the Apple book store. It is the digital library that is causing more headaches and is the focus of the settlement. The library is, in a way, an open-access database. Publishers both big and small are realizing the benefits of ebooks and the importance of having an online presence.

Some publishers, namely some specializing in STM (Science, Technical, and Medical publishing) have open-access sites where thousands of books and journals are available for free. Of course, they are free if you belong to an institution that pays handsomely for access to the content in the first place. Project Gutenberg has also been offering online versions of works in the public domain for some time. But the point is that the web makes it easy for information to be shared and more and more we are seeing a move to transparency and free dissemination of content.

There are those who believe all content should be free, no matter what. There are also those who believe governments shouldn’t keep any secrets. While these are noble thoughts, there are legal and ethical ramifications of seeing those staunch beliefs carried out to the letter. Bit-torrent and file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay have been a thorn in companies’ sides for some time (though recently a court ruled that the site was guilty of facilitating piracy). Wikileaks, of course, continues to make transparency a hot topic of conversation.

The debate over digitizing orphan books will also continue, and Google will keep on scanning out-of-print titles and making them available for free. It’s hard to completely object to Google’s efforts to spread information and make books available to readers. For its ever-increasing dominance in our lives, Google has done wonders for the web and, by extension, our lives (guess which search engine was used to research this article?). But by the same token, authors deserve control of their work, not to mention some financial compensation.

In the end, Google may not be allowed to hold exclusive rights to their library, which means other companies or institutions will join the game (see this article from The New York Times for a good overview of the Google Books Settlement and a better look at what might, and perhaps should, happen next). It may not be great for Google, but with millions of free books available at our fingertips, it certainly isn’t bad for readers.

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