Google Books Settlement Heats Up – Is It Time For Legislative And Executive Intervention?

As Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog notes:

For all those who’ve made lists of cases to watch heading into the fall, may we kindly suggest adding the Google Books case, if you haven’t already.

The backstory: Manhattan judge Denny Chin is currently sitting on a settlement reached last year between the search engine giant and publishers that would allow Google to sell digital books online. (A hearing on the case is scheduled for Oct. 7.)

Since the settlement was announced, a chorus of objectors has emerged, many of whom have howled that, were the deal allowed to go forward, Google would be allowed a near-monopoly on the publication of out-of-print books and other titles.

You can read the Google Books Settlement press release and proposed settlement here, where I casually described it as "good news for everyone," largely on the assumption that the Author’s Guild had reached a settlement that would both make orphan works more accessible and provide compensation for such use. Such was how the settlement was described.

But the settlement is much bigger than that. Walter Olson at Overlawyered rounds up some criticism:

One blogger turns thumbs down on Google Books settlement [Patrick at Popehat] “Laundering orphan works legislation through a class action lawsuit”? [James Grimmelmann, ACS Blog via Mass Tort Lit] Much more: Lynn Chu/Writer’s Reps (who, I should note, has represented my literary interests on matters unrelated to this); WSJ Law Blog; Pasquale/ConcurOp.

The objections are worth considering. Principally, the objection is, as Chu writes,

The Google Book Settlement far exceeds any mere litigation settlement. Settlement is about damages for specific, past harms. This, by contrast, is a business proposal. The plaintiffs’ claim was about the harm from Google’s book copying before January 5, 2009. After four years of self-serving business planning, what the parties now place before the court is no “settlement” of this claim at all, but a 335 page publishing and union contract—a proposal for a business venture they wish to present to the class.

Google, although generally a good corporate citizen, has often been cavalier about the rights and interests of individuals, particularly with regard to privacy and copyright, which, like the book settlement, affect the ability of individuals to control the content they produce. As such, there is reason to be suspicious.

One issue, however, seems to be missing from the debate so far: a general principle of governance is that, in the absence of regulation, social policy issues will be determined by litigation.

It is the second half of 2009.  He have affordable technology to unlock much of the collective wisdom of humanity and make it immediately accessible anywhere in the world. Indeed, we even have a well-regarded company ready and willing to do it for free.

That is not a mere business proposal. That is a social policy issue of considerable importance, one will may affect us for generations to come, particularly if, as academics have warned, the inaccurate metadata used by Google Books represents a "train wreck" for scholars. It should be the subject of legislative and executive attention; that is why we have representative government in the first place, to assess and to act upon (or intelligently decide not to act upon) social policy issues.

But it is not the subject of much legislative or executive attention, likely because our intellectual property regime is captive to a handful of corporations that believe they can and should control the bulk of culture forever. They like how things are going for them. They’re not going to rock the boat over mere books; indeed, they probably like seeing Google centralize control over publishing the way the RIAA and MPAA have centralized control over music and film.

One consequence of this laissez-faire approach by the government is, as we see in the Google Books settlement, creation of "policy" by the judicial branch by way of litigation. Litigation, however, is particularly ill-suited to solve these problems, for the very reasons mentioned by the objectors, such as the lack of notice to, and participation by, millions of interested parties, including parties which will become interested in the future.

As such, we’re stuck. An internationally-and-instantly-accessible, free-of-charge Library of Alexandria is, in theory, a wonderful idea. But so is reasonable protection for the rights of authors (and so is the assurance that appropriate metadata has been captured). And who will decide the wisdom of the new Library of Alexandria?

Judge Denny Chin. I have nothing against Judge Chin — he may issue a ruling far superior to that which could have been produced by any Congressional subcommittee — but I can assure you that the Framers of the Constitution had no intention of leaving such matters to him alone.

[UPDATE: Ask, and ye shall receive. The House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary is holding a hearing entitled, "Competition and Commerce in Digital Books." Hopefully, prepared remarks will be available on the site soon.]

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