As you all must have seen, a judge has ruled against the Google Settlement, http://tinyurl.com/4mohw36 . What does this mean, and mean for authors, editors, publishers, librarians, students? Well, first, what is the Google Settlement? Google, working with several academic libraries, and later the cooperation of major publishers and indeed the Authors Guild (an organization which represents the rights and interests of book creators) have been digitizing books. In the end the goal was to make some 50 million or so books available digitallly. Which books? Any books other than those on sale now where free would compete with sale price. Many folks seemed to like this — say you had an out of print book that was hard for anyone to find, now it would be available in the Google Digital Library; say you were researching something and did not live near a major library, now much of what you needed would be a keystroke away; say you work for a school or library that would like to digitize its holdings but could not afford to, now the deep pockets of Google would come to your aid.
But many people also had problems with the Google proposal. The objections I followed most closely came from Dr. Robert Darnton, in a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, including this one: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/oct/04/library-without-walls/ Darnton argued that a digital library was a great idea, but it should be a government enterprise, a National Digital Library, not the creation, and thus in some senses the property, of a commercial firm. His objection gets to heart of the judge’s ruling. The judge said it is fine to create this library in cases where I as the author agree — sure, I’m glad to give a new life to my out of print book X in digital form. But what about “orphan” books — that is a book where the author passed away or cannot be found, there is no estate or heir available, there is no one with the legal right to speak for the book. In the Google plan, a book would be in the library unless a rights holder said no — thus all of the orphan books would be in. The judge said you should reverse the rules: you our out unless you ask to be in — thus the orphan books would be excluded.
In the end it came down to trust — for now Google has been honorable, has spent its own money, and has treated this enterprise more as an idealistic effort than a profit center. But once it had all the books, could it be trusted to continue to be such a good corporate citizen? I like Darnton’s idea — a national digital library, including orphan books. Then, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, can all compete with one another to provide better access services — in whatever blend of free and for cost makes sense to them as corporations. In other words, the books are there as a national resource, we don’t have to worry about corporate policy shifts. But company’s can make their best efforts to confince us to use their services in using he books.
The judge’s ruling is clearly an effort to refine the Google agreement, not to end it. He made clear that he would be open to a revised version. So we will very likely have some form of Google Books library. I hope that we also have a National Digital Libary.