Right around the time when eCommerce became the buzz word of the day, I worked with a girl named Angela at a software firm who contracted out full project teams to companies who had not yet trained their workforce to use web based technology. Angela and I considered ourselves artist, but avoided being the suffering kind by working as technical writers and HTML coders. Our personal usage of the internet was all about access to free information and cool stuff. The projects we worked on were all about how to make money on the web, which caused us to view all profit-interested companies as greedy and abusers of this new wonderful technology. We had a secret catch phrase that we emailed to back and forth and sometimes scribbled on each other’s note pads in meetings: “Use the internet for good, not for evil.” Our heroes in this emerging technology field were the founders of Google. Their philosophy seemed to be all about using the internet for good. Their mega search engine was free to use and originally had no favorite links in the search results.
Fast forward to 2004. Google is now a huge company making loads of money, a lot of it through their online advertising. They announced that they are going to start a “library project” which involves scanning books from the public domain, creating a huge digital library that can be shared by the masses. By December that year, they started scanning books that were still copyrighted but defended the action by explaining that only snippets are going to be shown online (even though they scan the all pages of every book). Authors started to rumble and a law suit was filed in 2005.
In 2008 a settlement was reached with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Google agreed to pay 125 million dollars to resolve outstanding claims and establish an independent “Book Rights Registry,” which would provide revenue from sales and advertising to authors and publishers who agree to digitize their books. Publishers in France and Germany were very unhappy about the settlement and the US Department of Justice warned that the terms might violate several US copy right laws. It’s back to the drawing board for all parties involved.
January 28th, 2009 was the last day for authors to opt out of the new agreement that has been drafted, it was also the last day to file objections and a flurry of those have been received. One of the new changes involves Google helping to set book prices by developing an algorithm that simulates what the prices would be under competitive market conditions. Guess what Amazon and other retailers think about that! Yeah, none of them are fans.
As with any debate, there are people with strong opinions on both sides, but even those that consider themselves in the middle are confused about the settlement. Public Knowledge, an advocacy group finds the spirit of Google’s effort—”making knowledge and creative works available to the general public”—to agree with its mission, but it wants to see the contents of orphaned works equally available to all, rather than made the exclusive domain of Google. To make this happen, Public Knowledge thinks that the current copyright law needs to be changed and that a settlement that is limited to two parties won’t provide the solution. The court hearing for the new agreement is set for Feb 18th.
John Timmer wrote a good article about the new settlement for Ars Technica: The Art of Technology, the BBC News offers a good summary, and New York Greater Metropolitan Area chapter of the Internet Society web site has a 115 minute long webcast of a panel of experts discussing the implications of the settlement, which they jointly hosted with the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the National Writers Union (NWU), and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). (It’s worth just watching the first 20 min or so to get the background from Paul Aiken from the Authors Guild.)
So what do you think? Is Google’s library project using the internet for good of for evil? I’ll have to see if I can reconnect with Angela and see what she thinks.