Nitpicking the Google Books Settlement 2.0

I previously posted on the Google Books Settlement, avoiding the well-trod ground and focusing on points that were salient but hadn’t received much discussion. Now that there’s a new draft of the proposed settlement, I’ll do the same:

  • The revised settlement cuts out a huge swath of international works. There’s no legal reason for this, since the settlement is based in U.S. law, which treats works equally regardless of where they were published. (Moreover, the settlement only provides access to users in the U.S.) Yet I haven’t seen one public interest advocate criticize the loss to access that will be the result of this change.
  • The discussion of this change has mostly been summarized as “foreign language works are now excluded”. But that’s a misleading oversimplification. The new settlement includes works published in the U.S., UK, Canada, or Australia, or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. That will certainly include many non-English works (remember Canada is bilingual?). It will also exclude many English works: consider New Zealand, Jamaica, India, or many other English-speaking countries.
  • Much criticism has focused on the question of orphan works. This is a bit baffling to me. The settlement would provide an unprecedented access to orphan works. Indeed, to me this is the biggest benefit of the settlement.

    The main criticism of this is that Google would be the only provider of access to these orphan works. Monopoly access is certainly undesirable (particularly given the other flaws of the settlement: the privacy weaknesses, the DRM, the single interface, the overall market position of Google, etc.). But isn’t monopoly access (with antitrust scrutiny) better than no access?

    The only way the answer is “no” is if the settlement holds back progress toward non-monopoly access. For instance, a settlement clause that guaranteed Google competitors the same terms (even if they had to do the scanning themselves) would open competition. Obviously, Google is not interested in such an approach, and since the settlement is a negotiation between Google and the plaintiffs (who I would guess to be agnostic on that question), we shouldn’t expect to see those terms unless the judge or the Department of Justice forces them.

    A legislative solution, such as proposed by the Copyright Office, would be an improvement as well. But orphan works reform has so far stalled in Congress, and I haven’t seen any indication it will be a priority for the current Judiciary Committee. For its part, Google says it will still support orphan works reform if the settlement is approved.

    I’m not sure how to predict what the effect of the settlement would be on the prospects for legislative action. One the one hand, Congress might say, “It looks like Google has solved that problem, so we don’t have to do anything.” Alternatively, Congress might say, “That Google settlement seems to have riled a lot of people up; I’d rather not put my stick in that antpile.” On the other hand, the settlement might give greater impetus to Google’s competitors to tell Congress, “We’re on unequal terms now; we need you to pass orphan works reform to level the playing field.” No matter what happens, I don’t expect this Congress to pass orphan works reform. How long are we willing to wait?

  • Speaking of orphan works, the Unclaimed Works Fiduciary is a trustee with one hand tied. As I reported for OAN, the UWF — an independent agent entrusted to manage the works of rightsholders who haven’t claimed their works under the settlement — doesn’t have all the powers of an actual rightsholder. Whereas a rightsholder is guaranteed under the settlement the options to, e.g., set a zero price for her work, to apply a Creative Commons license, or to remove DRM, the UWF isn’t guaranteed those same options. In fact, the UWF can only exercise those options with the approval of the Book Rights Registry, which is run by publisher and author representatives. So if the UWF came to the conclusion that the best fiduciary interest of its absentee rightsholders was represented by making their works freely available, it would not necessarily be able to do so. Given the growing suggestions that making a book freely available often has no discernible negative consequence on sales revenues for that book, and in some cases may even increase sales, the settlement should not exclude that option.
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