Scholars look at fallout of Google Book settlement at HLS
What will libraries in 2075 look like? Can copyright law be re-engineered? Should we trust Google to make decisions in the public interest? Those were some of the questions discussed at “Alternative Approaches to Open Digital Libraries in the Shadow of the Google Book Search Settlement,” a conference which took place at Harvard Law School on July 31.
Participants in the conference, which was sponsored by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, focused extensively on the ramifications of the 2008 settlement reached by Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers about copyright infringement caused by Google’s book search function.
The massive settlement devises avenues for Google to pay royalties to authors through the creation of a central book rights registry, enabling Google to index the books and display snippets in search results, as well as up to 20 percent of each book in preview mode. Google will also be able to display ads on these pages and make available for sale digital versions of each book. Copyright holders will receive 63 percent of all advertising and e-commerce revenues associated with their works.
Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig warned that the settlement, which goes before a New York District Court judge in October, is too complex and does not allow for enough open access to the material in the Google Books database.
Citing the maze of permissions and licensing needed today to make documentary films, Lessig said the Google settlement “moves us down a path where books become documentary films, when the ecology of access we have to books in the future is like the ecology of access we have to documentary films today.”
“It’s a digital bookstore with the freedoms of a library of documentaries, which, in my view, is no freedom at all,” added Lessig. The issue, however, is not Google, which is acting as a profit-making company should, he said. It’s up to academics, politicians, researchers and consumers to resolve the questions raised by the new “information ecology,” rather than leave it to Google, he argued.
Lessig made the case for a new kind of copyright system that would deal with the new challenges posed by digital technology. He argued that a registration system, instead of antiquated laws from the print world, could clarify which materials need copyright protection and which should be in the public domain.
But he criticized the Google settlement’s registration system because it “documentarifies” so-called orphan works—books and materials for which no author can be located. “It imposes such enormous transaction costs on getting access to orphan works, it guarantees that they remain orphans,” he said.
Despite what Lessig called the “insanely” difficult questions raised by the emerging digital “information ecosystem,” participants were upbeat about moving forward. As Harvard Law School Professor John Palfrey ’01 succinctly put it: “It’s not game over.”
“Those of us who are queasy about or skeptical about the settlement have a particular challenge on our shoulders: What do we think would be better?” Palfrey asked a packed Pound Hall classroom.
Admittedly, Palfrey said, he and other scholars are five years late to the game. Although there have been efforts by universities and public libraries to create open digital libraries, including Open Knowledge Commons, Google has become the chief player in this space.