Google brands ebook monopoly critics 'shortsighted'
Brin and his spin
Poised to create a court-approved monopoly in the digital book market, Google's $125m library-scanning settlement  is under investigation by the US Department of Justice  and possibly state attorneys general . But Google co-founder Sergey Brin has defended the company's pact with American authors and publishers, calling criticism of the deal "pretty short-sighted and contradictory."
In October, the company settled a lawsuit from the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, and if approved by the court the deal would hand Google - among other things - an eternal license to scan and sell and post ads against so-called "orphan works," books whose rights are controlled by authors and publishers who have ceased to exist or can't otherwise be located.
And this legal protection would apply only to Google. "Google will have permission to bring under its sole control information that has been accessible through public institutions for centuries," Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle wrote in an editorial  published earlier this week by The Washington Post. "In essence, Google will be privatizing our libraries."
Of course, Sergey Brin doesn't see the problem. In an interview with The New York Times , he said the settlement would allow Google to offer widespread access to millions of books that are largely hidden in university libraries. "We are increasing choices," Mr. Brin told The Times. "There was no option prior to this to get these sorts of books online."
Ah, but that's because no one else was willing to get themselves sued for multimillions of dollars.
Like Google, the Internet Archive has spent years working to digitize the world's library collections. To date, it has scanned over 150 million pages and put more than a million books online. Certainly, the organization advocates putting orphan works on the net. But it believes that right should not be limited to a single company. The orphan-works issue should be decided by government legislation, the Archive argues, not by a civil lawsuit.
"Scanning books and preparing them for discovering and presentation is not rocket science, and it's not that expensive," the Archive's Peter Brantley tells The Reg. "We would be delighted to digitalize [orphans] and make them available if we had legislation-afforded mechanisms by which we could do that - without fear of substantial liability. All we need is legislation."
From where Google is sitting, there's nothing stopping the Archive - or anyone else. Speaking prior the company's shareholders meeting earlier this month, Google senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond said that "anyone who wanted to go scan" books could "come up with a similar outcome," meaning anyone else could reach their own book settlement.
It's true. Anyone could follow in Google's footsteps. They could start scanning books without regard for copyright and hope for a legal onslaught from the world's authors and publishers. In this case, scanning books is extremely expensive. Some have questioned whether even the big names could foot the bill.
"Virtually the only way that Amazon.com, Microsoft, Yahoo!, or the Open Content Alliance could get a comparably broad license as the settlement would give Google would be by starting its own project to scan books," writes  Pamela Samuelson, University of California, Berkeley law professor.
"The scanner might then be sued for copyright infringement, as Google was. It would be very costly and very risky to litigate a fair use claim to final judgment given how high copyright damages can be (up to $150,000 per infringed work). Chances are also slim that the plaintiffs in such a lawsuit would be willing or able to settle on equivalent or even similar terms."
Sergey Brin shrugged off such talk as Google was announcing an amended library-scanning agreement with the University of Michigan. Google has been scanning books inside the university's library since 2004, but with the new pact, Michigan has embraced the terms of the court settlement. The Times leads its story with the claim that Michigan's new pact "could blunt some of the criticism" over Google's author and publisher settlement. But that's more Brin spin.
Before ruling on Google's book settlement, a New York-based federal court is kindly accepting complaints from other interested parties. And earlier this month, the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) filed papers asking the court to exercise close control over the settlement.
Among other things, the group complained that the settlement fails to give outsiders a say on the price of the online digital-book service Google plans to sell to libraries across the globe. The amended agreement  with the University of Michigan would allow the university to cry foul if thinks the price is too high, and Google hopes that other libraries will ink similar deals.
But as part of the deal, in return for allowing scans of its works, Michigan gets free access to Google's online service for 25 years. Which makes you wonder why Michigan would ever object to price.
"We see the amended agreement as a step - or an attempt - in the right direction," Corey William, associate director in the association’s Washington office, tells The Reg. "But it doesn't address our concern that all libraries should have the ability to request reviews of pricing should a dispute arise. That right has been extended to Michigan - and other libraries - but it hasn't been extended to all libraries."
But if Sergey Brin and company can drown out such voices, they will drown them out. The Reg was amused this morning when we searched Google News for stories on the amended Michigan pact. Google's new news landing page  listed five stories and one enormous call-out quote from, yes, Sergey Brin:
Brin spin, indeed. ®