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Latha Jishnu: Book-building worries

Google's project to digitise the world's books raises complex issues of copyright, fair use and fears of monopoly power

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Google’s philosophy is don’t be evil. That core value is being put to test by Google’s project to digitise the world’s as outraged authors across the globe scream infringement and file lawsuit after lawsuit against the Internet and media behemoth. Their main objection is to Google’s class action settlement with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild, another US organisation. Implicit in the (ASA), which the US Department of Justice is overseeing, is the author’s approval for digitisation unless he/she specifically seeks to opt out.

The Indian Reprographic Rights Organisation (IRRO) and the (FIP) which filed their charges at the New York district court towards the end of January say the settlement is “contrary to every international treaty that governs laws. Google’s unilateral conduct is a brazen attempt to turn law on its head, by usurping the exclusive rights of the holder”.

But surely, loves and authors? Here’s what Sergey Brin, co-founder and president of technology at Google, states: “We love at Google, and our fondest dream is that Book Search will evolve into a service that ensures that books, along with their authors and publishers, will flourish for many years into the future.” It appears, however, that loves more and authors less. Recently, it had to apologise to Chinese writers after Mian Mian, a popular Shanghai-based novelist, sued the company for infringement.

According to China Daily, infringement involved 8,000 pieces of works by 2,600 writers that had scanned to put up in its digital library. has apologised to the Chinese writers, the writers are not mollified. Nor are Canadian or Indian authors, among a host of others who include the (FSF). It has filed a new objection and has asked the court to reject the settlement unless it addresses the concerns of authors who use the Free Documentation Licence and similar Free Software licences for documents.

And it turns out that the reworked settlement or ASA that has worked out with American authors and publishers is being questioned by the US government. Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice said that despite the substantive progress made in Book Search Settlement 2.0, “substantial issues remain” because the revamped agreement “suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement: It is an attempt to use the class-action mechanism to implement forward-looking business arrangements that go far beyond the dispute before the court in this litigation.”

The Book Search project is sweeping in its ambition and scale. So far, is reported to have scanned over 10 million books, in snippets, which means only certain pages can be accessed, or in “full preview” mode. That’s why the Department of Justice is still full of praise for the “vast promise” of Google’s attempts to make copyrighted works easier to find and search. “Breathing life into millions of works that are now effectively dormant, allowing users to search the text of millions of at no cost, creating a rights registry, and enhancing the accessibility of such works for the disabled and others are all worthy objectives,” it notes.

However, “the US has reluctantly concluded that use of the class-action mechanism in the manner proposed by the ASA is a bridge too far.” Besides, there are serious anti-trust concerns over pricing arrangements since would have a monopoly. Under the ASA, would remain the only player in the digital marketplace with the rights to distribute and otherwise exploit a vast array of works in multiple formats. also would have the exclusive ability to exploit unclaimed works (including orphan works) without risk of liability. Orphan works are those whose owners cannot be located.

What this means is that the already protracted negotiations could drag on further since the department says public interest would best be served by having the parties to work on the settlement, perhaps under court guidance. The project of scanning and putting them in a digital library harks back to the age when the mammoth library of Alexandria was set up. Those, however, were times when was not an issue, and certainly not the contentious problem they have become today.

At the core of the problem is technology. Since act of “reproduction” occurs whilst scanning the book, there is infringement because laws do not permit reproduction of any work without the consent of the owner, barring “fair use”. In the real world of books, especially in a library, such limited reproduction would not be considered an infringement.

But there are others who champion the project as making libraries more egalitarian. As they see it, the digitisation of is ending the distinction between circulating libraries meant for general readers and research libraries that are the exclusive preserve of scholars. Search will undeniably level these distinctions. The question is at what cost?  

First Published: Thu, February 18 2010. 00:36 IST