Google Books decision not quite the triumph it’s made out to be

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2011

Ah, the striking down of the Author’s Guild/Google Books settlement – a victory for creators and publishers, and a sharp stick in the eye of a cocky monopoly!

Or is it perhaps a stymieing of innovation wrapped around a bone thrown to the copyright maximalism lobby? Ryan Singel sure thinks so; the whole thing’s well worth a read, even – or perhaps particularly – if you’re opposed to the Google Books project, but I’ve plucked out a few highlights:

The decision was widely praised — including by digital rights groups — perhaps in no small part because it dealt a setback to a company that often forces us, without asking first, to reconsider what it means to live in an information age. Take the project of photographing every house and every road in the world as one big example of that hubris.

But that celebration is a shame, because the world will be poorer for the decision.

Here’s the benefits you won’t be getting, as enumerated by Chin himself in his decision.

“Books will become more accessible. Libraries, schools, researchers, and disadvantaged populations will gain access to far more books. Digitization will facilitate the conversion of books to Braille and audio formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities. Authors and publishers will benefit as well, as new audiences will be generated and new sources of income created. Older books — particularly out-of-print books, many of which are falling apart buried in library stacks — will be preserved and given new life.”

Who won then? The copyright whingers.

[…]

Google was sued not for selling out-of-print books, but for digitizing books and then using snippets from copyright works in search results.

You’d think this was something authors would like.

In fact, there’s a huge business known as Search Engine Optimization that focuses on getting people’s copyright work — their websites — to rank higher in Google search. The math is simple: Ranking highly in Google search equals income for that copyright holder.

But those who want to opt their website out of Google’s search can do so with a simple file known as robots.txt that tells search engines to go away. Google Books offers a similar opt-out for authors.

But authors felt that copyright meant they had total control over their work and that it was unfair that Google made money off search ads on search result pages that included snippets of their work. So they sued.

The authors would have lost in court.

[…]

Chin also suggests that Google will get a search monopoly if the settlement were approved.

That’s ridiculous.

Google already has a de facto search monopoly in the U.S. because its search engine is markedly better than those of its competitors. And even without the settlement, Google will continue to include in its search results snippets from the books it has scanned without permission. Blocking Google from selling and displaying orphan books won’t prevent Google from retaining 70 percent search-market share.

[…]

Killing off the one promising digital library at the behest of copyright maximalists and jealous competitors is no way to get a dithering Congress to make a decision that will benefit the public, especially when our Congress is more interested in partisan stupidity than social good.

Indeed, Congress’s recent record on copyright has largely been to strengthen the hand of copyright owners. Copyright terms were extended again in 1999, to life-plus-70 years, and 120 years for corporate copyrights — done to protect Disney’s Mickey Mouse franchise).

With the caveats that (a) I’m not a lawyer and (b) I’m slightly more familiar with the UK’s copyright laws than those of the US, it does seem to me that the authors cheering this nose-bloodying of Googoliath are in fact cheering a decision that has effectively negated a potential new income stream for themselves and their fellow creators, and which hands further leverage to corporate copyright holders who are certainly no less underhand and interested in easy profits than Google themselves. Sure, you’ve prevented someone else from profiting from making your own work more findable… during a period where dead-tree bookstores are shutting their doors in swathes, and other digital distributors are gouging a 30% rake-off from all sales made within their gorgeously-landscaped walled garden.

It’s not quite a Pyrrhic victory, but it’s pretty close.