Increasing Concerns Raised Over Google's Book Search Settlement

from the a-bad-deal-for-everyone dept

When the settlement between Google and authors and publishers, over Google's book scanning project, was announced, many saw it as a big victory for everyone -- as it allowed Google to continue moving forward with plans to scan books, while also creating a "business model" for authors and publishers. However, some of us were very troubled by the implications of the settlement. It seemed clear to us that Google had a strong argument for why its actions were perfectly legal. Settling did a number of dangerous things. It failed to clear up the legal issue at all (effectively making it cost prohibitive for anyone else to work on a similar project). It set in permanent place a business model which seemed hugely bureaucratic and inefficient. That business model is basically set in stone and set by the terms of this agreement, rather than any real market mechanism. Finally, it signaled (loudly) to the world that Google was plenty willing to pay a few million dollars to settle with opponents, even when it had a strong legal position, knowing that it would make life more difficult for competitors.

It appears that as the details have come out, more and more people are troubled by what the settlement actually will mean in the long run. Robert Darnton, the head of the Harvard library system (which had already complained about the settlement) has written a thoughtful piece, detailing his worries about how this creates an effective monopoly, and the many, many downsides that this causes.

Prior to this settlement, we had been one of the bigger defenders of Google's book scanning program against those who worried that it was creating a de facto monopoly. That's because there were no exclusive agreements. However, with the new settlement, while again others could enter in theory, Google has effectively priced the rest of the market out. Prior to this, there was a reasonable argument to be made that anyone could scan books and create an index, so long as they weren't displaying too much of the books. Now... Google has set a market price of $115 million, plus a set-in-stone business model, as the entry price. It's pocket change to Google, but it's a big barrier to others.

This is definitely raising concerns from a variety of other sources, who were at least cautiously optimistic when the deal was announced. The EFF now points us to James Grimmelmann's worries about the deal (pdf). While Grimmelmann does support the deal and say it will be net positive for society, he then goes through a pretty detailed list of problems with the deal, almost all of which go back to the idea that this deal gives Google effective monopoly power over digitized books.

Finally, as for my initial fear that this would signal something of an "open season" on Google, with demanding money from Google for Google daring to provide the service of helping others find their works, we're already seeing some of that in the early stages. Some in the newspaper business are using the book settlement as a template for how Google should pay them too.

In the long run, I think Google is going to regret this deal. Yes, in the short term it handed Google a monopoly and removed a distracting lawsuit from the table. But, it did some very dangerous things that will harm Google in the long term. It signalled Google's willingness to pay up even when it shouldn't have to. It set in stone a business model way before anyone knows what the best business model is for online books. And, finally, in knocking all competitors out of the market, Google has taken away its own best incentive to continue innovating and serving customers at the best of their ability in the book search realm. The end result may be a worse product that isn't nearly as useful (and revenue generating for Google) as it would have been if it had real competition in the market.
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Filed Under: book scanning, book search, copyright, culture, settlements
Companies: google


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  1. identicon
    DoxAvg, 12 Feb 2009 @ 4:12am

    Monopolies bring state-backed value, and that's bad

    Patents and copyrights provide state-backed monopolies to increase the value and thus the incentive to create new and novel works; so goes the initial justification. Congress is responsible to the people and checked by the executive and legislative branches, which keeps them from creating legislative abuses of those state-backed monopolies [see "Theory and Practice, differences"].

    What concerns me is that some extra-legislative organizations, the Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers , has unilaterally decided to give Google this de facto monopoly. They (literally) absolutely have the right to make any deals they want about their copyrights, but there is a subtle lie that is become more and more common with "representative organizations" such as the AAP and the RIAA: because we represent a substantial portion of the market, we can make collective deals for the entire market.

    If Google sweeps up my out-of-print or share-alike licensed book in their automated scanfests, for every copy they sell, the AAP gets paid as a result of the monopoly, not me. And because they have a been granted the de facto monopoly on the scanned books, they will be able to charge monopolistic prices. Until I assert my rights with Google, the AAP gets paid for my work.

    I think the biggest loss from this whole deal is the widening of the gap between the all-progress-is-through-monitezation camp and the free-culture-whacknut camp. There was a good argument that the vast majority of copyrighted work was rotting on shelves, untouchable, because of the Sony Bono Act its ilk. Now, there is a monopolized incentive for Google to bring that marginal value from zero to [something slightly larger than zero], and the copyright eternalists can point and say "no, those should no go into the public domain; Google is actively making money off of them and making sure that everyone can have access (for a price)." I think this deal is the end of any chance of copyright ever expiring. When the Sony Bono Dark Age is in danger of coming to a close, Disney and Google will both be standing at Congress's doorstep with many well-funded arguments that if we were to let copyright expire any less than 150 years after the author's death, none of those dead authors will ever make anything again.

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