At Risk: Universal Online Access to All Knowledge

I’ve been following Brewster Kahle and Robert Darnton, a University Professor and director of Harvard’s Library, recently, and they’re concerned over the settlement of the lawsuit between Google and the authors and publishers, over the scanning and use of books in Google Book Search. In my experience, Brewster is extraordinarily thoughtful and takes a long view. Early in my career, I was a librarian. I love books. So while I’m not a lawyer and I find this settlement confusing, I’m writing about it because I think it merits awareness and a serious discussion.

The key issues appear to be whether the business model created by the settlement will lock up content that essentially belongs to the public domain (per Brewster) and whether the publishers’ and authors’ creation of a Google monopoly for books will harm access to knowledge in the future (per Darnton). Below, I’m relying on their words to explain this further.

Last week Brewster posted “It’s All About the Orphans” ( on the blog of the Open Content Alliance, focusing on the plight of “orphan works” – that vast number of books that are still under copyright but whose authors can no longer be found:

“After digesting the proposed Google Book Settlement, it becomes clear that the dizzyingly complex agreement is, in essence, an elaborate scheme for the exploitation of orphan works… The upshot, if the Settlement is approved, would be legal protection for Google, and only for Google, to scan and provide digital access to the orphan works. Presto! … So, should the Settlement be approved, Google will be handed exclusive access to the orphans, and the public loses out… I, personally, am amazed at this creative use of class action law. The three parties have managed to skirt copyright law, bypass legislative efforts, and feather their own nests – all through the clever use of law intended to remedy harms. This Settlement, if approved by the judge, will accomplish things appropriate to a legislative body not to private corporate boardrooms. Let’s live under the rule of law, as arduous as that might be, and free the orphans, legitimately, not for one corporation but for all of us.”

And in “Google & the Future of Books” (, an article that Darnton published in The New York Review of Books last month, the focus is slightly different but the upshot is the same:

“After reading the settlement and letting its terms sink in—no easy task, as it runs to 134 pages and 15 appendices of legalese – one is likely to be dumbfounded: here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library… Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business – not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon… The class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition… We are allowing a question of public policy – the control of access to information – to be determined by private lawsuit… As an unintended consequence, Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly – a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information… The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company… This is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever.”

A lot seems to be at stake and the court may approve the settlement in June! I don’t care if the settlement means that Google will get even richer (disclosure: I’m a Google shareholder). The question is: to what extent will WE become poorer?

tags: , , , , , ,