Library groups gripe about Google Book Search

Google's book-search program has allies and enemies among librarians. Now three library groups have filed complaints, but not an objection, to a book-search legal settlement.

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Stephen Shankland
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Three groups representing hundreds of libraries lodged a long series of concerns about a proposed settlement of lawsuits over Google Book Search on Monday--but refrained from objecting overall.

Specifically, the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries expressed some affinity for Google's mission of sharing books with the public, but raised concerns in a legal filing that the settlement would concentrate power in Google's hands and poses pricing and privacy concerns.

Google has patented technology for scanning books.
Google has patented technology for scanning books. U.S. PTO

Google is scanning millions of books, presenting their contents online at the Google Book Search site and blending some information into its regular search results, but the move triggered lawsuits by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild. A proposed settlement of the class-action suit would permit Google to share some contents of books online--not just those that are in the public domain and those still being sold with which Google has agreements with publishers, but also those that are still in copyright but out of print.

The settlement terms are of high interest to the library world. Under the proposed settlement, Google would offer a free computer terminal in U.S. libraries that would permit people to read books online and a subscription service that would permit paying customers, such as larger libraries, to offer more computer terminals. In cases where readers or institutions pay for access to online books, funds would be divided between Google and a proposed independent non-profit group, the Book Rights Registry, set up to handle payments, find authors and other rights holders, and let them include or exclude their works from the project.

"The library associations do not oppose approval of the settlement. The settlement has the potential to provide unprecedented public access to a digital library containing millions of books," the groups said in their filing. "However, the digital library enabled by the settlement will be under the control of Google and the Book Rights Registry. Moreover, the cost of creating such a library and Google's significant lead-time advantage suggest that no other entity will create a competing digital library for the foreseeable future."

That power could put libraries at a disadvantage, they argue.

"We are concerned that the cost of an institutional subscription may skyrocket, as academic journal subscriptions have over the past two decades," said Erika Linke, president of Association of College and Research Libraries, in a statement.

Added Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association, the proposed settlement "offers no assurances that the privacy of what the public accessed will be protected, which is in stark contrast to the long-standing patron privacy rights libraries champion on behalf of the public."

In its response, Google looked on the sunny side but didn't address pricing or privacy details: "We're pleased that the thousands of librarians and libraries represented by the ALA recognize the promise of our groundbreaking agreement, and we appreciate that the Library Associations do not oppose approval of the settlement. Google is proud to partner with dozens of libraries around the world as part of our Book Search efforts, and we have consistently maintained that, if approved by the court, our settlement agreement stands to unlock access to millions of books for users in the U.S."

But the library groups struck a more sober tone in their filing. Take, for example, this section on the power Google would get by virtue of obtaining online publishing rights through the class action settlement:

The settlement of copyright class action litigation might well have been the only feasible way this research tool could have been created. A class action settlement provided perhaps the most efficient mechanism for cutting the Gordian knot of the huge transactions costs of clearing the rights of millions of works whose ownership often is obscure. However, the class representatives and Google structured the settlement in such a manner as to give them enormous control over this essential facility. This is not surprising, given their economic interests. Indeed, precisely because of their economic interests, it is unlikely that they would have agreed to a structure that did not grant them such control.

To be sure, nothing in the Settlement prevents another entity from undertaking a mass digitization effort similar to Google's. But given the enormous cost of such an effort, and Google's significant lead time advantage (Google has been digitizing in-copyright books since 2004), no other entity is likely to so in the near future. Hence, there is no foreseeable threat to the control Google and the Registry have over this essential research facility.