Sunday, May 10, 2009

Google Books Un-Settlement

If you're not following this story, you should be... it has become so much more than an argument about digitization and copyright law. It's becoming a national debate (soon to become worldwide debate) about the future of information retrieval and access to research materials on the internet. Last week, the American Library Association and Association of Research Libraries got together to issue a stern "Shhhhhh!" to those noisy folks over at the Google table. (Just kidding, librarians, you know I love you.) Actually, they filed an amicus brief (opens in .PDF) in US District Court. If you're not a librarian or if you don't know any, let me give you some background. The publishing industry has been consolidating quite a bit in the past decade. This you are no doubt aware of since you are reading a blog about books and publishing. What you may not know is that the publishers of academic and professional journals have consolidated even more than the publishers you are familiar with. To the point where the publication of these important research materials is so concentrated in a few hands that the prices libraries pay to obtain them has gotten quite exorbitant. Additionally, many of the print editions have gone by the wayside to be replaced by electronic editions at not very much cost savings for the end-users. Libraries foot this bill in a time of ever-shrinking budgets. Academic libraries must additionally weigh the demands of various deans and professors for content immediately relevent to their classes with little or now additional help in their budget to offset the increases. This is simply a fact of life in terms of library budget management. Tack on the fact that the Google settlement does not in any way indicate what they will be charging libraries and institutions for this new electronic database to which their patrons and students will be demanding access. This is another straw on the camel. Additionally, the ALA and the ARL do more to safeguard our free access to information and the privacy of their clients than we'll ever know. If the access point to all (or even almost all) digital content is concentrated in the hands of a company that has shown themselves to be inconsistent in their protection of their users from interference by the state (censorship in China, but going to bat for user privacy in the US). Whilst librarians have, can, do, will go to jail to protect the Constitutional rights of library patrons. Will the people at Google be willing to do the same?
"The associations asserted that although the settlement has the potential to provide public access to millions of books, many of the features of the settlement, including the absence of competition for the new services, could compromise fundamental library values including equity of access to information, patron privacy and intellectual freedom. The court can mitigate these possible negative effects by regulating the conduct of Google and the Book Rights Registry the settlement establishes." - From the American Library Association press release
I wish them the best and I see their point. I'm just not sure their faith in the ability and willingness of the government to exercise oversight on something as complex and nuanced as global information access is well-placed. Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that state Attorneys General are taking a look at the Google Books settlement with an eye toward doing something about it. What, exactly, remains to be seen. After the state-by-state battles waged by Microsoft in their antitrust suits (not to mention country-by-country since the Internet's global) this thing isn't going to be resolved anytime soon.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).