Critics of Google’s book-searching agreement with publishers and authors were cheered last week when antitrust regulators in the Justice Department set their sights on the search giant’s publishing deal, demanding more information.
“This is a monumental settlement that’s at stake, and for the government to show this kind of attention is heartening,” says Lee Van Orsdel, dean of university libraries at Grand Valley State University. “The increased scrutiny on the part of the DOJ tells us that our concerns are resonating far beyond the library community,” concurs Corey Williams, associate director in the office of government relations at the American Library Association.
Goliath Google facing off against a legion of librarians and, possibly, the U.S. Justice Department now there’s a fight.
Indeed, a deal that once appeared a sure bet for rubber-stamp approval is now the target of angry opposition and intense regulatory interest, which throw its future into question.
At issue is a $125 million settlement agreement reached last October that gives Google the right to make millions of books available for reading and purchase on the Internet. Under the pact, a Book Rights Registry will be set up that will allow publishers and authors to register their work and get paid for their titles through institutional subscriptions, ad fees and book sales. Google will retain 37% of the revenue, with the remainder going to the registry to be distributed to authors and publishers. The deal effectively gives authors and publishers control over their work in the digital world and pays them for it. For the public, it means easy click-of-the-mouse access to millions of books that sit on dusty shelves in university libraries across the country.
The agreement, which must still get federal court approval, was aimed at ending two lawsuits filed in 2005 against Google by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Basically, authors and publishers had complained that the Web-searching king had broken copyright laws when it scanned millions of books from university and research libraries and made snippets of their content available online.
In a complex settlement agreement, which took three years to hammer out and spans 135 pages excluding attachments, Google will be allowed to show up to 20% of the books’ text online at no charge to Web surfers. But the part of the settlement that deals with so-called orphan books which refers to out-of-print books whose authors and publishers are unknown is what’s ruffling the most feathers in the literary henhouse. The deal gives Google an exclusive license to publish and profit from these orphans, which means it won’t face legal action if an author or owner comes forward later. This, critics contend, gives it a competitive edge over any rival that wants to set up a competing digital library. And without competition, opponents fear Google will start charging exorbitant fees to academic libraries and others who want full access to its digital library.
“It will make Google virtually invulnerable to competition,” says Robert Darnton, head of the Harvard University library system.
Although competitors could scan orphans, they would not be protected from copyright suits as Google is under the agreement. “They’d face lawsuits all over the place,” making the risk too big, said Darnton.
Without competition, pricing could go wild, critics claim. The registry, which oversees pricing, is comprised of authors and publishers who stand to benefit from high subscription fees. “There will be no incentive to keep prices moderate,” Darnton says.
The library community recalls with horror the pricing fiasco that occurred when industry consolidation left academic journals in the hands of five publishing companies. The firms hiked subscription prices 227% over a 14-year period, between 1986 and 2002, forcing cash-strapped libraries to drop many subscriptions, according to Van Orsdel. “The chance of the price being driven up in a similar way is really very real,” he says.
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