New Life for Old Books, but a Question Arises…

As the parties in the Google Books case get back to the drafting table (this time with very special guest, the United States Department of Justice), one of the stated benefits of Google’s massive scanning undertaking seems to be taking root.  According to the AP (via the Daily Journal Online), Google has allowed 2 million of the out-of-copyright books to be published by On Demand Books.  Before I get to the somewhat boggling bits, the report states that On Demand, the maker of the Espresso Book Machine can print a 300-page book in about five minutes, and the prices will be around $8.00 per book, with On Demand keeping $1.00 and Google getting $1.00.  Presumably the balance is comprised of materials cost? (Apparently Google will be donating it’s share to charity…)

Okay, here’s the part where it gets a little weird:  “Neller of On Demand Books is thrilled just to have the right to publish selections from Google’s digital library of public domain books.”  If the books are in the public domain, it would seem that On Demand would not need permission to print them.  And yet Google has placed restrictions on what one can do with the PDFs:

  • Don’t engage in large scale redistribution or rehosting of the files
  • Don’t sell digital or physical copies, or help other people buy and sell them
  • Don’t send automated queries to Google’s system
  • Don’t remove the Google “watermark” you see on each file
  • Respect the Google Terms of Service

Well, they’re guidelines more than requirements:  each of those bullets is preceded by “Please,” which is a really fudgy word, and the whole entry is prefaced with a “we ask that you follow some basic guidelines.”  I get that Google is probably trying to be approachable and not a content tyrant, which is appreciated.  And I get that there are transaction costs that are avoided by On Demand using Google as its storehouse of content, but doesn’t it seem odd that someone is getting the “right” to make copies of works that are no longer in copyright?  And isn’t that, in some way, already the concern about Google doing all this in the first place?

Anyway, I’ll admit that copyright is a thorny, complicated issue that is probably better suited to an article or book (hey, there’s an idea!) but I just wanted to point out that not all is crystal-clear in Google Books land.  This isn’t to say that there is necessarily anything inherently wrong in what On Demand and Google have agreed to do, but something about it strikes me as odd.

Google Books and Antitrust Problems

The Antitrust Division of the DOJ has weighed in on the Google Books settlement, and rejection of the settlement is urged.  (See news articles on it here.)  According to the DOJ press release, “the Department proposed that the parties consider a number of changes to the agreement that may help address the United States’ concerns, including imposing limitations on the most open-ended provisions for future licensing, eliminating potential conflicts among class members, providing additional protections for unknown rights holders, addressing the concerns of foreign authors and publishers, eliminating the joint-pricing mechanisms among publishers and authors, and, whatever the settlement’s ultimate scope, providing some mechanism by which Google’s competitors can gain comparable access.”  (Source.)

But what’s actually in the Statement of Interest, which can be found here?  First, it assumes that the parties have been acting in good faith, that is “it should not be a surprise that the parties did not anticipate all of the difficult legal issues such an ambitious undertaking might raise.”  Authors Guild v. Google, No. 05-Civ-8136 (S.D.N.Y. 2009), Statement of Interest of the United States of America Regarding Proposed Class Settlement at 1.  Furthermore, it says that the basic idea is good: it would “breathe new life” into out-of-print books, which benefits the public.  Id.

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Even More on the Google Books Settlement

Settlement agreements rarely get the amount of scrutiny as the proposed agreement in the Google Books controversy, and now the Register of Copyrights, Marybeth Peters, has testified to Congress about the settlement.

While there are parts of the settlement that meet Ms. Peters approval (“some of the settlement terms have merit and should be encouraged under separate circumstances” such as the potential for the registry to “offer the copyright community, the technology sector and the public a framework for licensing works in digital form and collecting micro-payments in an efficient and cost-effective manner”), by and large her remarks were critical, noting that “none” of the potential positive “possibilities should require Google to have immediate, unfettered, and risk-free access to the copyrighted works of other people. They are not a reason to throw out fundamental copyright principles; they are a pretext to do so.”

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More on the Google Books Settlement

The Google Books settlement is generating a lot of ink over the past few days, with Microsoft wading into the waters.  According to PC Magazine, Microsoft filed objections with the Southern District of New York, arguing that Google had no right to “restructure copyright,” and that any changes should be handled by Congress.  (Microsoft posted a copy of its brief on its “Microsoft on the Issues” blog.)

Microsoft joins a fairly heavy-hitting group which objects to the settlement, including the American Law Institute (which is responsible for the various Restatements), Amazon, DC Comics, and the American Society of Media Photographers, just to name a few.

Yeah, it’s ironic that Microsoft is complaining about competition given its track record, but don’t discount its sway.  (And also don’t discount it’s probably ticked that Google is stirring things up in Europe.  Speaking of Europe, Europe isn’t so thrilled with the settlement, either…)  As Wired magazine pointed out a few months ago, Microsoft has the DOJ’s ear to a certain degree.  And given that the DOJ is investigating the settlement for competitive harm, I’m not so certain that the settlement is completely safe.

(As for whether Congress should be the ones deciding this topic, perhaps Microsoft and the others are right, but it’s not like I trust Congress to keep consumer interests in mind.  The DMCA should be proof enough of that….)

Google Books Settlement and Privacy Concerns

Google has always been a problematic company for me.  On one hand, its search engine has become the de facto starting point for the vast majority of internet users, so much so that when Google goes down (as it will from time to time), people say that the internet is broken.  (See this Ars Technica article.)  Its clean, uncluttered search interface revolutionized searching, and its results were usually spot-on, with its “I’m Feeling Lucky” feature almost always taking you where you wanted to go.  In recent years, however, my experience with Google’s ability to find what I’m looking for has dwindled as SEO services have cluttered up search results, which is why I often use Bing or Yahoo! in addition to or instead of Google.

I’ve complained before of Google’s data-mining and -tracking, as well as its emphasis on “Cloud” computing. And now, there’s a new bug in my craw: Google Books.
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