Google Book Search and the Dog in the Manger
Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on April 18, 2009
The proposed settlement of a lawsuit against Google Book Search by publishers (including the McGraw-Hill Companies, owner of BusinessWeek) and the Authors’ Guild has drawn a lot of fire from opponents of restrictive copyright law (for example, this essay by Pamela Samuelson of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.)
The gist of the argument against the settlement is that it would give Google monopoly rights to republication of a vast class of “orphan” works, books that may still be in copyright but for which no rights holder can be identified. It’s a great academic argument, but I think it has one huge flaw: These works have been inaccessible to most readers for years, and the odds are that without Google Book Search and the proposed Book Rights Registry, they will continue to be inaccessible indefinitely. Yes, if a court approves the settlement, Google will have an effective monopoly over commercial distribution of these works. But it’s not like competitors are lining up for a crack at this business.
Until Google came along with its plan to scan the contents of research libraries, these books were going to remain in dusty corners of the stacks forever. Now that Google is proposing to make a little money by bringing these books back to life, supporters academic freedom are up in arms.
I think the public interest is best served by making these books available outside of libraries. If there were a practical method for doing this without creating a Google monopoly, I would prefer it. But I haven’t seen such a plan and, frankly, I think the profit potential is low enough that we aren’t likely to see anyone but Google take this on.