Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2009 Issue

Rivals, Others Seek to Derail Google/Publishers Alliance


While there is merit to some of their objections, to us this appears for the most part like the makers of horse-drawn carriages in the early 20th century attempting to pass laws that would make the use of automobiles impractical. They are standing in front of the tides of time, or at least, like Custer, in front of a flood of Indians. Digital access to old, hard-to-find texts is so superior in terms of practicality that it will happen, period. Progress cannot be stopped, and this is clearly progress.

The Alliance objects to Google, in effect, gaining a monopoly on access. To the extent that there are limitations on competition, their objections are reasonable. No one should be able to gain a monopoly on the future, even if they are the first. However, to the extent that Google's "monopoly" is based on their being the only outfit willing to invest in the costly scanning necessary to create this digital collection, then they have earned their position. After all, the only alternative to this kind of monopoly is nothing at all. And, Microsoft complaining about Google having a virtual monopoly when they have defended their own virtual monopoly on operating systems and software for years strikes us as, well... let's just say ironic.

Google's settlement with the authors and publishers both does and does not create a monopoly. It is not an exclusive agreement. It does not prohibit the copyright holders from signing agreements with other digital providers. However, it does not provide similar arrangements for others either. They are free to negotiate with the copyright holders, but they are not guaranteed access to these works on similar terms. Of course, this can also be said of suppliers to Wal Mart. There is no guarantee manufacturers will sell their products to your country store on the same terms that they sell to Wal Mart. They might charge you more, making it difficult to compete against the giant. Large customers often get better deals, and Google is likely to be the largest customer for this product. That said, there is nothing in this agreement that suggests the publishers and authors would not make their books available to others in a 63%-37% deal either.

The Open Book Alliance states, the settlement "would allow a group of erstwhile competitors to collectively set prices and leave Google as the only company with the right to copy, display or sell digital versions of orphan works (books for which authors or rights holders cannot be identified or located). Consumers would be better served by a competitive market for digital books that is available to everyone on non-discriminatory terms." That may be true, but no one else is undertaking the efforts necessary to offer these books to the public. In effect, Google is granted a "monopoly" because no one else has yet asked for permission to offer these books. Microsoft scanned about 700,000 books but then dropped the project, evidently concluding it would not be profitable. Google did not force them out of the business; they simply chose to exit. And, as for lack of competition, books have always been subject to such constraints. After all, you can't publish a copyrighted book. For most, there is one publisher who holds a monopoly on publishing rights. That's true of virtually all of these books. At least Google is offering a second way of obtaining these books, rather than having to rely on a monopolistic publisher who may never print another copy of the title you want.

The Alliance objects that community libraries get only one free-access terminal to these books, school libraries none. However, this is more than they have now. They still keep their hard copies, so what is offered, including that one free-access terminal, is incremental. They object that writers lose negotiating rights to their work, but they can still act to withdraw approval at this time. In an ideal world, permission should be sought from them first, but as previously explained, that just doesn't work for millions of books published as long as 86 years ago.

This does not mean that we are without concerns over what could be a monopoly on information. Google has become dominant in search by providing a better product, not by unfair competition. They are now taking their superior product a step further by not just providing the same information available to other searchers in a better manner, but by providing information not accessible to others. That may further solidify their dominance in search and make all of us very dependent on Google for information. That is not a perfect situation, and the government will have to be vigilant less Google someday move from its "do no evil" policy to become the Standard Oil of information. However, for now, it is Google that is investing the most to provide us with information, and Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon, which could do the same, would be better served by working with the Internet Archive to develop a competing repository of data. Complaining about how the other guy provides a wonderful new service without providing an alternative is just standing in the way of progress. They need to offer an alternative, or move aside.

Rare Book Monthly

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