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Is Google Books the Antichrist?

August 21, 2009

screaming-womanForget Skynet, Sauron or Cigarette Smoking Man and worry instead about Google Books, which, critics seem to think has a much stronger bid at taking over the world. Or at least the world of books, which is to say information, which is to say, well, the world.

Okay, okay, so I’m trying to jazz up a dull-but-important story. But the so-called “Google settlement,” which opponents say will give Google Book Search a permanent and unfair competitive advantage, will dramatically change the way readers access books, not to mention some critical ways authors and publishers are paid.

Heavy hitters Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo plan to join a coalition of nonprofits, library associations and individuals opposing the settlement, The New York Times reports today. The Times also reports the Justice Department has opened an anti-trust investigation into the implications of the agreement.

Tentatively called the Open Book Alliance, the coalition plans to make a case to the Justice Department that the proposed settlement, ending a law suit brought by the Authors Guild, the American Association of Publishers and others in 2005, is anticompetitive.

Among other things, the settlement allows Google Books to go forward with its project to digitize millions of books and sell access to them on the Web. It sets up something called the Books Rights Registry to collect revenue and pay authors, publishers and other rights holders. The Registry would also settle disputes.

The parties to the settlement say it will make millions of books available, many of them out of print, while also providing new ways for “millions of authors to make money from digital copies of their books,” the Times reports.

Opponents counter the agreement gives Google an insurmountable competitive advantage, exempts it from antitrust laws, and grants Google copyright immunity in regards to “orphan books,” titles that are still under copyright but whose authors have died, disappeared or otherwise “abandoned” their works.

Indeed, the settlement will give Google “a monopoly–a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information,” warned Robert Darnton, head of Harvard University libraries, in a February essay in the New York Review of Books.

Will the settlement also compromise reader privacy, grant Google a stranglehold on all information in the known universe, or give rise to a super digital intelligence that will nuke our cities, enslave us in stasis chambers and eat babies for breakfast? Beats me.

The 300-page settlement is more complicated than the schematics for the Star Ship Enterprise or the formula for Harry Potter’s Polyjuice Potion. Good luck finding a concise source explaining its provisions. But here are some places to start: New York Law School has set up a Book Settlement Wiki called the Public Index, but it is daunting.

Google Books’ settlement agreement page is slightly less readable than the health care reform bill; Randal C. Picker, of the University of Chicago Law School, discusses three key provisions of the settlement in a surprisingly clear abstract at the Social Science Research Network; and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a Reader’s Guide to the settlement.

Good. There will be a test on Monday.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice permalink
    August 21, 2009 10:54 pm

    I love modern technology. But the ramifications of it sometimes makes my head spin.

  2. Monica permalink
    August 23, 2009 8:47 am

    In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God …

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