On the Google Book Search agreement

As many have, I've been eager to understand the terms of the settlement in the AAP/Authors Guild v. Google case (Google Summary, Actual Settlement). After spending some time studying it, here are my thoughts. (4TR: I was not part of any of these settlement negotiations so all this was news to me).

IMHO, this is a good deal that could be the basis for something really fantastic. The Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers have settled for terms that will assure greater access to these materials than would have been the case had Google prevailed. Under the agreement, 20% of any work not opting out will be available freely; full access can be purchased for a fee. That secures more access for this class of out-of-print but presumptively-under-copyright works than Google was initially proposing. And as this constitutes up to 75% of the books in the libraries to be scanned, that is hugely important and good. That's good news for Google, and the AAP/Authors Guild, and the public. (My favorable views about the AAP at least are not, of course, reciprocated.)

It is also good news that the settlement does not presume to answer the question about what "fair use" would have allowed. The AAP/AG are clear that they still don't agree with Google's views about "fair use." But this agreement gives the public (and authors) more than what "fair use" would have permitted. That leaves "fair use" as it is, and gives the spread of knowledge more that it would have had.

The hard issue here will be in the details (surprise, surprise). The agreement calls for the creation of a registry to be operated by a nonprofit corporation. That corporation will be governed by a board comprised of publishers and "authors" (meaning authors participating in the law suit). That corporation will administer the payments to authors and publishers that flow from the agreement. It will also administer a registry that will make it easier for works to be identified, and owners located.

The hard question for the registry is how far they will go to support the range of business models that authors and publishers might have. E.g., Yale Press "Books Unbound" and Bloomsbury Academic both have Creative Commons licensed authors. Will the registry enable that fact to be recognized? Indeed, though the comment was made by someone from the plaintiffs' side that it would be "perverse" for authors to choose free licensing, it is perfectly plausible that an author would choose to make his or her work available freely electronically, but contract with one commercial publisher to deal with selling the physical book, or licensing rights commercially. That, again, is the Bloomsbury Academic business model. Ideally, this non-profit should encourage the widest range of rights-respecting business models. One clear signal about what kind of organization this is will come from this.

But key to the good in the agreement is that we don't have to trust the nonprofit to do good here. Google has committed both to making the data it can control (not private data about telephone numbers and contact info, but public data about copyright registration, terms, etc.) nonexclusively available, and more importantly, downloadable by anyone who wants to build a competing and complementary database. It has also reserved important safe-harbors for its incredibly valuable public domain collection (which includes books people get free access to, and can download for free).

Here, too, however, there is an important challenge for Google. It has provided important value by making available works that have no rights attached to it. But it should do more to make available works that have some rights attached to it. Critical for evaluating whether the long term interest of Google is GOOd or GOOey, Google needs to build into its architecture assets that are licensed freely, or under noncommercial terms, to complement the assets that it claims are free for "noncommercial" download (namely, the public domain works it has). Acting to clearly support the non-proprietary movement as well as the proprietary is an important way for it to show that it stands in the middle, and that it, with the AAP/Authors Guild, have now done some real good.

The biggest loser in this whole battle is the Orphan Works legislation. If anyone needed evidence to demonstrate that it is WAY TOO EARLY for Congress to be passing massive new bureaucratic overlays to copyright to deal with the important problem of "orphan works," this is the evidence. Let's let this private alternative develop, while Congress puts away its billion-factor balancing tests for regulating access to "orphan works." For earlier rants against the Orphan Works bill, see:

Copyright Policy: Orphan Works Reform

Internet Law: 2.5 done (round II on Orphans)

And here's a video I did years ago against the original Orphan Works proposals.

And a video I did long ago about whether Google's use was "fair use."

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