This week a US judge ruled against the Google Book Settlement, the latets in a seven year legal saga that I’ve covered in some depth here.
Jerry Brito has a good explainer of the background of the case:
In mid-2005, the Author’s Guild and the American Association of Publishers filed suit to stop Google from scanning any more books. Soon the Author’s Guild’s case was certified as a class-action lawsuit, meaning that anyone who had ever published a book—millions of authors—would be part of the class represented and would be bound by the result of the case.
An Unsettling Settlement
Three years later, after extensive negotiations, the parties announced they had reached a settlement. Google would pay $125 million up front and would then be allowed to continue scanning books and making them available online. More importantly, Google would be allowed to offer not just snippets, but it would be allowed to sell entire text of books as well. The copyright holder would get about 2/3 of the revenues and Google would keep 1/3.
On its surface, the proposed settlement was a boon for all involved. Google would get to continue digitizing books, authors and publishers would get a cut of the profits, and consumers would get universal access to almost all of the world’s books. But reading between the lines, the settlement proved to be problematic.
Because it was a settlement to a class-action lawsuit, it meant that all authors who had ever published a book were bound. Google could scan any book without first asking for permission. If an author didn’t want his book to be scanned or included in Google’s database, he had to contact Google and opt-out. This would have turned copyright on its head.
As a result, many authors protested. The Author’s Guild and the publisher’s association had negotiated on behalf of millions of authors, and many felt the deal didn’t represent their wishes. Almost 7,000 authors wrote to the court asking to be removed from the lawsuit’s plaintiff class.
Saving the Orphans
Another contentious aspect of the settlement was how it treated “orphan works,” books the authors of which are unknown or can’t be found. It’s a well-known problem in copyright that members of Congress have tried to fix several times.
The problem is that if a company like Google wants to digitize a copyrighted book, and it can’t find its author to ask for permission, then its choices are 1) scan the book anyway and face heavy penalties if the author surfaces later and sues, or 2) leave the book undigitized and out of a universal library. As a result, hundreds of thousands of books are in a kind of limbo, not accessible to readers even if the author may well have been fine with digitization.
The Google Books settlement presented a solution to the problem. Because it bound all authors—-known and unknown—-Google could proceed to scan orphan works without having to worry. If an author later surfaced who didn’t want his book used, he could no longer sue Google. He could opt-out of the program and claim a check for the revenues associated with his book, but no more.
Some welcomed this solution to the problem, but others, including the Department of Justice, pointed out to the court that it would give Google a monopoly over orphan works. Because the settlement would only apply to Google, if another party like Amazon or the Internet Archive wanted to create its own digital library that included orphan works, it would not get the same protection.
And it wouldn’t be easy for other to get the same deal. Short of Congressional action, the only way a company like Amazon could get similar treatment would be to settle a class action suit of their own—a very difficult and time-consuming set of events to replicate. Additionally, because the authors and publishers who negotiated the Google deal are getting a cut of revenue, some have suggested that it would be in their interest to make sure Google remained a monopoly and would therefore not settle as easily with other parties.
Because class-action lawsuits can be as controversial as this one, the law requires that a court approve a settlement before it becomes binding. The court accepted over 500 briefs from various parties supporting or opposing the settlement and early last year held a hearing on the fairness of the settlement. It rejected the case yesterday.
The options available now to Google and the authors and publishers are:
- Continue litigating the original lawsuit, which is an unlikely scenario.
- Amend the settlement to make it opt-in, meaning that authors would have to give permission before their books are scanned.
- Appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court.
Judge Chin seemed to invite a new settlement, saying in his opinion that “Many of the concerns raised in the objections would be ameliorated if the [settlement] were converted from an ‘opt-out’ settlement to an ‘opt-in’ settlement.”
In the New York Times, Robert Darnton, himself a librarian and a strident if highly-0informed critic of the deal, weighed in with this opinion piece:
This decision is a victory for the public good, preventing one company from monopolizing access to our common cultural heritage.
Nonetheless, we should not abandon Google’s dream of making all the books in the world available to everyone. Instead, we should build a digital public library, which would provide these digital copies free of charge to readers. Yes, many problems — legal, financial, technological, political — stand in the way. All can be solved.
The Chronicle of Higher Education carries a good interview with Pamela Samuelson:
It’s the only ruling really that the judge, I think, could have made. The settlement was so complex, and it was so far-reaching. With the Department of Justice and the governments of France and Germany stridently opposed to the settlement, it seems to me that the judge really didn’t have all that much choice. So the ultimate ruling, that the settlement is not fair, reasonable, and adequate to the class, is one that I think was inevitable.
The thing that surprised me about the opinion was that he took seriously the issues about whether the Authors Guild and some of its members had adequately represented the interests of all authors, including academic authors and foreign authors. That was very gratifying because I spent a lot of time crafting letters to the judge saying that academic authors did have different interests. Academic authors, on average, would prefer open access. Whereas the guild and its members, understandably, want to do profit maximization.
The EFF’s Corynne McSherry has this analysis:
On the policy front, the court recognized – as do we – the extraordinary potential benefits of the settlement for readers, authors and publishers. We firmly believe that the world’s books should be digitized so that the knowledge held within them can made available to people around the world. But the court also recognized that the settlement could come at the price of undermining competition in the marketplace for digital books, giving Google a de facto monopoly over orphan books (meaning, works whose owner cannot be located). The court concluded that solving the orphan works problem is properly a matter for Congress, not private commercial parties. Sadly, Congress has thus far lacked the will to do so. Perhaps yesterday’s decision will finally spur Congress to revisit this important issue and pass comprehensive orphan works legislation, that allows for mass book digitization.
That said, the court also got some things fundamentally wrong in its copyright analysis. For example, it states that “a copyright owner’s right to exclude others from using his property is fundamental and beyond dispute” and then proceeds to quote at length from the letters of numerous authors (and their descendants) who share the misguided notion that a copyright is, by definition, an exclusive right to determine how a work can be used. We respectfully disagree. Copyright law grants to authors significant powers to manage exploitation of creative works as a function of spurring the creation of more works, not as a natural or moral right. And those powers are subject to numerous important exceptions and limitations, such as the first sale and fair use doctrines. Those limits are an essential part of the copyright bargain, which seeks to encourage the growth and endurance of a vibrant culture by both rewarding authors for their creative investments and ensuring that others will have the opportunity to build on those creative achievements. Thus, as the Supreme Court has explained, such limits are “neither unfair nor unfortunate” but rather “the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.” If the legal issues raised in the underlying lawsuit are ever litigated on the merits, let’s hope this or any future judge keeps the traditional American copyright bargain firmly in mind.
Michael Liedtke of the Associated Press thinks this is a micvrocosm of the larger anti-turst and monopoly challenges facing Google:
This week’s ruling from U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin did more than complicate Google’s efforts to make digital copies of the world’s 130 million books and possibly sell them through an online book store that it opened last year. It also touched upon antitrust, copyright and privacy issues that are threatening to handcuff Google as it tries to build upon its dominance in Internet search to muscle into new markets.
“This opinion reads like a microcosm of all the big problems facing Google,” said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley lawyer who represented a group led by Google rivals Microsoft Corp. andAmazon.com Inc. to oppose the digital book settlement.
Google can only hope that some of the points that Chin raised don’t become recurring themes as the company navigates legal hurdles in the months ahead.
The company is still trying to persuade the U.S. Justice Department to approve a $700 million purchase of airline fare tracker ITA Software nearly nine months after it was announced. Regulators are focusing its inquiry into whether ITA would give Google the technological leverage to create an unfair advantage over other online travel services. Google argues it will be able to provide more bargains and convenience for travellers if it’s cleared to own ITA’s technology.
In Europe and the state of Texas, antitrust regulators are looking into complaints about Google abusing its dominance of Internet search to unfairly promote its own services and drive up its advertising prices.
And Google is still trying fend off an appeal in another high-profile copyright case, one stemming from its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, the Internet’s leading video site. Viacom Inc. is seeking more than $1 billion in damages after charging YouTube with misusing clips from Comedy Central, MTV and other Viacom channels. A federal judge sided with Google, saying YouTube had done enough to comply with digital copyright laws in its early days.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and a notable Google gadfly, said the company overplayed its hand by essentially trying to rewrite the rules governing the copying and distribution of book content through a class-action settlement. “Google clearly flew too close to the sun on this one,” he wrote in an e-mail. “…This is not what class-action suits and settlements are supposed to do.”
Vaidhyanathan said that Google now faces the choice of either continuing to fight for its interpretation of copyright law in the courts or scaling back its plans for a digital bookstore. “If Google decides to take the modest way out, it can still ask Congress to make the needed changes to copyright law that would let Google and other companies and libraries compete to provide the best information to the most people,” the media scholar says. “Congress should have been the place to start this in the first place.”