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Publisher defends Google Books 'sell out'

Fox raising chickens is good for chickenhood, says exec

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World Copyright Summit Richard Sarnoff, the man who signed off on the historic authors settlement with Google, took to the stage to defend the deal today. If it survives antitrust scrutiny, the Settlement between Google and US authors promises to give Google a monopoly on out-of-print books in digital form. Isn't the accumulation of knowledge in one private corporation scary?

"It's like getting a fox to look after the health of the chicken," says Eric Baptiste. Sarnoff - speaking at the World Copyright Summit in DC today - didn't quite see it that way. But his defense was very, very interesting. It's even more interesting when you consider his explanation.

"When the industry was confronted by Google's plan to scan books, we felt there were core copyright issues and they needed to be litigated They were making and keeping copies of these books and were going to exploit those in a certain way."

The authors' society felt "their entire behaviour and activity was illegal," Sarnoff said. "We wanted to challenge that, where rights holders got to call the shots."

But something funny happened on the way to the law court. Despite having the law on its side, the authors caved and settled out of court. Why?

"Books that are Out of Print - are a 'No-opoly'," he says. "They're inaccessible except to those within physical reach of a particular library. This will create a market for those titles for the first time."

That's odd, because it isn't a 'market'. There's no competition for Google, which is rewarded for its aggressive scanning operation with a distribution monopoly. If the authors had defeated Google, and insisted on encouraging competition - from Microsoft and Brewster Kahle's internet archive, which also has scanning ambitions - then there may have been a market.

Sarnoff's odd justification is that you have to nip illegal downloading in the bud. At Napster, Bertlesmann (then one of the five major labels and publishers) had tried to settle.

"We made an attempt to co-opt Napster - when it was 95 per cent of all the illegal downloads in the world - to the benefit of the recording industry. We were not joined by the balance of the industry for doing so. We were sued. The result was a very negative outcome ultimately for the industry; the things that grew up are much more pernicious than if we tried to get it under control."

OK. What's that got to do with books?

Consumer behaviour on downloading ebooks is not an established behaviour. If you ask people if they've downloaded a book then 80 to 90 per cent of the time, people would say no. The Google settlement is great thing to do if habits are being estbalished."

It's all very odd.

Even odder was his assertion that professional journalists have never had it so good.

"Professional journalism has had a renaissance in the digital era. The parts journalists can produce are more useful, and they can charge more as a result."

Oh, really? We'll try and find him to clarify. ®

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