Libraries have always been vital to me and my family. Our local library, at the end of our street, was our second living room. Books have always been at the forefront of our daily lives. I remember once, after dinner with my parents in New York's Greenwich Village, we discovered their car had been stolen. I walked them to the train station so they could get home. My father grimaced, saying to my mother, "Dorrie, was my book on the front seat?" For years, my dad served on the board of directors of our local public library. For his decades of service, they held a dinner honoring him. At that point depending on a scooter for much of his moving around, he hauled himself up to the podium, unsteady from his multiple sclerosis, and said, "This is what sitting on a board for 25 years can do to you."
But there is a battle raging right now over the future of books in the digital age and over the role libraries will play. One case now before U.S. Federal Court, some say, may grant a practical monopoly on recorded human knowledge to global Internet search giant Google. The case is complex and dense with legalese, yet has attracted opposition from hundreds of individuals and groups from around the planet.
Google announced in 2004 its intention to digitally scan millions of books, to index their contents, and to make them available and searchable online. For old books for which the copyright expired, and thus are in the public domain, the entire contents of the book would be made available. For newer books, those published since 1923 for which copyright still exists, the book would still be online, but only viewable in small part, in what Google called "snippets." Two groups, The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP), filed lawsuits, alleging that the scanning and display violated copyright protections. In October 2008, the groups and Google announced a settlement to the lawsuits, dubbed the Google Book Settlement (GBS). Google would pay $125 million and create a "Books Rights Registry," a new organization that would help direct funds from the settlement and future revenue from book sales, to the copyright holders. Google would be empowered to not only display works, but also to become a massive, online, electronic bookstore.
A key component of the settlement grants Google, automatically, permission to scan, display, and sell books that are still in copyright but are deemed "out-of-print," and for which the copyright holder cannot be easily found. These are referred to as "orphan works." The status of orphan works has been the subject of much debate, and legislation has been proposed to make orphan works more available to the public. There are millions upon millions of these books, most being carefully preserved in libraries. While many would be interested in getting access to the orphan works, the GBS grants Google, a for-profit corporation, and Google alone, sole, legal access to digitize and sell these works.
Stanford Law Professor Pamela Samuelson, one of the keenest observers of the conflict, wrote recently, "The Google Book Search settlement will be, if approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern era....[and] will transform the future of the book industry and of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books."
Brewster Kahle is the founder of the Internet Archive, a digital library that aspires to provide "universal access to human knowledge." Already, the Internet Archive houses 150 billion web pages (it archives the entire World Wide Web about once every two months, and makes these historical snapshots of the Internet viewable), 200,000 movies, 400,000 audio recordings, and over 1.6 million texts. Kahle is opposed to the Google Book Settlement. To scan the millions of books, Google has to get the books somehow. Google offers to scan the holdings of large libraries, and to return a digital copy of each book for the use of each library. Not bad, right? Many libraries like the idea, since digitizing their holdings has to date proven to be too costly. But there are strings attached. Most of the original contracts between the libraries, which originally included the University of Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, and the New York Public Library, remain secret. But the GBS lays out terms for libraries to participate. The digital books that Google scans and returns to a library, for example, will only be viewable on a computer terminal that Google provides. Public libraries will get one such terminal, for all their patrons. Universities will get one for every 10,000 students enrolled.
I asked Kahle how he sees the future of libraries. He told me,
Libraries as a physical place to go, I think will continue. But if this trend continues, if we let Google make a monopoly here, then what libraries are in terms of repositories of books, places that buy books, own them, be a guardian of them, will cease to exist. Libraries, going forward, may just be subscribers to a few monopoly corporations’ databases.
Kahle wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post, "For the cost of 60 miles of highway, we can have a 10 million-book digital library available to a generation that is growing up reading on-screen." Kahle's version of the digital library, which he and others are building collaboratively, is open and shareable, without the onerous strings attached as with Google's deal. Kahle and others have founded the Open Book Alliance, which filed an opposition to the Google Book Settlement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where the case is being decided. The Open Book Alliance likened the settlement to oil price-fixing schemes set up by railroad barons and John Rockefeller's Standard Oil in the 1870s. They allege that Google, the Authors Guild, and the AAP, through 29 months of secret negotiations, set up what amounts to a price-fixing cartel that will increase the cost of electronic books and library subscriptions, and effectively eliminate competition.
The American Booksellers Association (ABA), representing independent booksellers, remained on the fence, stating in a release,
ABA does not support or oppose the settlement — we do believe that there are important, related issues involved. ABA has long believed that the interests of our members, of writers and readers, and of our democratic society, are best served when the marketplace adheres to a standard of open access to books and other forms of intellectual content.
ABA, which just over a year ago launched its ambitious IndieBound project to highlight independent bookstores and the value of shopping locally, might be acting according to the adage, "An enemy of my enemy is my friend," since the proposed Google Bookstore that comes out of the GBS would likely hurt Amazon, the bane of bricks-and-mortar independent bookstores. Amazon sells actual paper books, and has cut into the sales of independent bookstores greatly. There were around 6,000 independent bookstores in the early 1990s, and only about 2,200 remain. Since the Google Bookstore — for now — will only be selling digital copies of books, one could speculate that the ABA member stores won't lose much business to Google, whereas Amazon, heavily invested in its Kindle electronic book platform, could.
After Judge Denny Chin, who is presiding over the case, called for public comment, opposition began flooding in from around the globe, from the governments of France and Germany, to scores of smaller and foreign publishers, authors, and artists, including folk singer Arlo Guthrie and author Julia Wright, daughter of Richard Wright, famed author of classics like Black Boy and Native Son. Annie Guthrie, Arlo's daughter and the granddaughter of folk music legend Woody Guthrie, in her filing, criticized Google's lucrative advertising program, which uses key words to target ads, writing, "Google could display ads for the army next to my father's antiwar songs."
Marybeth Peters, head of the U.S. Copyright Office, called it an "end run around legislative process and prerogatives." Judge Chin proposed a "fairness hearing" for October 7, 2009, to decide on the Google Book Settlement. As Prof. Samuelson has noted, out of the $125 million Google agreed to pay, the lawyers for the Authors Guild and the AAP would get $45.5 million, immediately, more than the amount in the settlement allocated to the authors.
On September 18, the settlement got walloped with a filing in opposition to it from the U.S. Department of Justice. It read, in part,
[T]he breadth of the Proposed Settlement — especially the forward-looking business arrangements it seeks to create — raises significant legal concerns. As a threshold matter, the central difficulty that the Proposed Settlement seeks to overcome — the inaccessibility of many works due to the lack of clarity about copyright ownership and copyright status — is a matter of public, not merely private, concern. A global disposition of the rights to millions of copyrighted works is typically the kind of policy change implemented through legislation, not through a private judicial settlement.
Judge Chin announced a week later that he had granted a delay on the hearing, at the request of the Authors Guild and the AAP. The Open Book Alliance along with many others applauded the delay, and are calling for an open, transparent process going forward to deal with the future of book digitization and the issue of orphan works, in a way that best benefits the public interest.
My father and his peers on the Bay Shore Public Library Board didn't have to deal with the complex technical and legal aspects posed by the Google Book Settlement. But my mother and father raised us in a home surrounded by books and reading. When we drove in to New York City, stopping by bookstores was a favorite past-time. When my parents sold their house, the one thing my mother said she regretted more than any other was having to give up any of their books. We learned that open, vigorous, and informed debate, around the dinner table, at work, in conversation, is vital to a democratic society. The digital age is still in its infancy, with the challenges and opportunities of the Internet unfolding on a daily basis. We need to not only preserve, but to expand, access to information. I know that if my father were here today, he would struggle up to that library podium and demand no less.