Digital Books Monopoly: What Will Happen When Google Passes 'GO'?

Digital Books Monopoly: What Will Happen When Google Passes 'GO'?

Back in November 2008, I wrote about the challenges that Google faced in their Google Books Library Project and their proposed settlement in response. To refresh, the Google Books Library Project is a hugely ambitious initiative to catalogue the millions of books in the collections of several major libraries and include them into Google Book Search. Similar to a card catalog, each book profile displays basic bibliographic information about the book and often includes a few sentences to display the search term in context. The major hurdle faced by Google was a class action suit against Google filed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild for wilful copyright infringement.

But Google is a perpetual opportunist. And its trump card was an offer to settle. According to Professor Pamela Samuelson in her article, the settlement offered by Google - and most likely to be accepted by the plaintiffs - will "transform the future of the book industry and of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books." If accepted, the settlement could give Google a license to commercialize all books owned by the class.

The settlement agreement designates the Authors Guild as the representative of the author subclass and the AAP as the representative of the publisher subclass. Amongst their increased power and responsibility over digital books, one of the most important tasks for the Authors Guild and the AAP is to create a new collection system, the Book Rights Registry, which ideally would find class members, sign them up, and pay them from a revenue stream that Google intends to generate from its commercialization of these books.

In the same article, Pamela Samuelson lists four reasons to challenge the Google Books settlement:

  1. The proposed settlement agreement implicitly estimates that only about 750,000 copyright owners will sign up with the Registry, at least in the near term.
  2. Many books are "orphans," that is, books whose rights holders cannot be located by a reasonably diligent search.
  3. Many easily findable rights holders, particularly academic authors, would much rather make their works available on an open access basis than to sign up with the Registry.
  4. Signing up with the Registry will not be a simple matter, since the Registry won't just take your word for it that you are the rights holder. You will have to prove your ownership claim.

I would like to add a fifth reason, and one that - in my very humble opinion - may be the most overwhelming and overarching reason of all: the settlement will give Google the ultimate monopoly over digital books and will wield almost all power over book distribution and sales. Again, according to Samuelson's article, because of international treaties, virtually every author and publisher of in-copyright books in the world is in the settlement class and eligible to receive revenues from the Google Book Search commercialization if they sign up with Google or the Registry. To me, books, in one form or another, represent the culmination of much of the knowledge that exists in our world. And to have one powerhouse - even a company as 'friendly' as Google - have so much control over them scares me. Through the power of search engine algorithms that the general public knows nothing about, Google has the power to hold whatever book it wants on a pedestal and drop whatever book it wants into its dark database abyss.

But can a monopoly like this be avoided? Probably not. First of all, I cannot imagine any other company other than Google that will have enough innovative prowess, enterprising abilities and guts to pursue such a book search project. Secondly, I cannot imagine a similar settlement - partnership between parties - to be repeated. With this settlement, we have Google working hand-in-hand with the Authors Guild and the AAP. Would the latter two parties do this again with another tech giant? I'd say that it is unlikely.

In our recent history, every technology leap forward has come with a step backwards in terms of risks, whether they are health concerns, safety concerns, or in this case, monopoly concerns. Will we just have to live with it? Perhaps. Or if authors would like, objections must be filed with the court by September 4, 2009.