Friday, May 27, 2011

The Google Books Mess

There were a couple of tell-tale signs last week that Google may be having some pain and problems with its vastly ambitious Google Books project. First, was the news that Google was pulling the plug on its corresponding, open-ended, plan to scan and database masses of historic newspaper archives. Second a report that Google was diverting all its programmers from its eBookstore and perhaps not vigorously pursuing plans selling eBooks.

The problem that Google has, is that there was huge momentum within the company towards its grandiose plan for a comprehensive universal digital library and this vision, with its accompanying class action settlement [ASA or amended settlement agreement] was decisively stopped in March by the opinion of Judge Chin (USDC SDNY)

While the digitization of books and the creation of a
universal digital library would benefit many, the ASA would
simply go too far. It would permit this class action - - which
was brought against defendant Google Inc. ("Google") to challenge
its scanning of books and display of "snippets" for on-line
searching - - to implement a forward-looking business arrangement
that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire
books, without permission of the copyright owners. Indeed, the
ASA would give Google a significant advantage over competitors,
rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted
works without permission, while releasing claims well beyond
those presented in the case. (Opinion 22 March 2011)

Chin's decision is styled an opinion, and it might yet be appealed or revised, but most observers would tell you that it has pretty well stopped the Google project in its tracks.

Google has got a lot of figuring out to do:

  1. Google is not out of its legal woes, although such a rich and powerful company can probably stall or out-manoeuvre the authors and publishers who are parties to the original suite in the USA. Yet Google will need some resolution to the case or it risks enormous damages for breach of copyright ($3.6 trillion according to one scholar).
  2. Google will not find it straightforward to avoid legal actions in other jurisdictions. It has ongoing legal woes in France, and if some French publishers win substantial damages, many others will charge through these same gates.
  3. Google is continuing to scan without permission millions of works which are not out of copyright on behalf of its library partners. So the liabilities grow.
  4. Google will be required to deliver digital library services to some of its core collaborating libraries. The libraries of Michigan and Stanford in particular. To the extent that these services depend on copyright works digitized without permission Google remains at significant risk.
  5. There will be increasing concern about advantages that may accrue to Google from the works that it has already scanned and databased, and which it may use in ways impervious and invisible to external actors. Perhaps Google will gain enormous advantage in the fields of search, automated translation and semantic technologies through private access to vast amounts of unregistered, unlicensed, copyright material. That putative advantage creates legal risks for Google from competitors and regulators.
  6. Without a recognized and legitimized settlement Google cannot deliver services of general public benefit, and at some point Google loses good will. Without a settlement Google cannot even be generous.
  7. Google has plenty of agreements with publishers and authors for the distribution, display and potential licensing of millions of copyright works. So it could be an active participant in the eBooks market, but it has been strangely hesitant and stuttering in recent years about its commercial activities. Almost certainly because Google's lawyers are anxious about the way such commercial exploitation may play against the unresolved matters in dispute. If Google carries on havering it will lose its opportunity in the digital books market, much as it appears to be losing its opportunity in the market for digital music.
I am not sure that Google has an easy way of stepping out of this mess. But it needs to find, or create through disruptive action, some solution.

The original goal of a universal library designed, built and maintained by a single technical player was hubristic and naive, driven by the enthusiasm and commitment of the founders (Page in particular who felt that he owed a debt to his alma mater, the University of Michigan). Google's best hope now would be to distance its involvement from the prospect of private gain and to place all works not public domain, and not explicitly licensed to Google, in the sole care and control of the public academic institutions from which the original works were taken, and to renounce any commercial advantage through its involvement in converting 'orphan' works. Google will have to pay the authors and publishers something (if only to cover some of the legal bills, that will otherwise be pursued to the bitter end on a contingency basis by the other side), it can afford to finance the first blocks of a Rights Registry, but it should be more open and more public, more consultative, in part foundation funded, than the original design. Google does not need and should not look for special advantages on rights and forward-looking business models. If Google were to do that it could help to promote the cause of orphan works legislation in a disinterested manner. Google needs to get legitimate, beyond all shadow of doubt, fast.

Google often likes to play the 'open' card, but it has been far too closed and 'private' over its books project. It needs to rethink the game-plan and its style of involvement. That way it will retain the good will of the library community and the reading public. By being highly generous and public spirited it looks after the interests of its shareholders also. Page is now CEO and he may need to bite on the books bullet and own up to a change of course, only be being much more open and generous can Google hope to make something like the Google Books project a reality.

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