Is the Google book search deal good for historians?





... What hasn't been talked about much is the idea that the settlement may benefit certain groups of authors more than others. A professional writer and an academic author often have different notions about when and how to make work available. One counts on revenue from book sales; the other cares more about spreading ideas.

That distinction is made loud and clear in the letter sent to Judge Chin. Organized by Pamela Samuelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, the group points to "widespread ignorance about the agreement and its implications for the future of scholarship and research" among their academic colleagues.

In a conversation, Ms. Samuelson emphasized that she and the other co-signers see the advantages of making millions of books available through a digitization project like Google Book Search. They do not reject the settlement out of hand. They just want their colleagues in academe to appreciate what's at stake. "People I've talked to have been pretty confused about it, and they don't know how to properly assess the pros and cons," she told me. "Academics have a lot of things they'd rather do than wade through a couple hundred pages" of legalese.

This is not a moment to stick one's head in the sand, the letter writers argue: "It is clear to us that the settlement, if approved, will shape the future of reading, research, writing, and publication practices for decades to come." Neither the Authors Guild nor the Association of American Publishers, weighted toward the commercial, "shares the professional commitments or values of academic authors."

There's the big question: Will the deal, if approved, help create a universal library — millions of digitized books truly available to anyone — or a dangerous monopoly that puts knowledge seekers at the mercy of Google?

Academic authors should think hard about what dangers might be lurking in that thicket of legalese. Ms. Samuelson et al. flush out several provisions that they think "seem to run contrary to scholarly norms and open-access policies that we think are widely shared in scholarly communities." For the open-access-minded, there's no mention of Creative Commons licenses "as alternatives to registration for payouts from Google" through the Book Rights Registry. Nor is there a clear definition of orphan works, those for which rights holders can't be found. (Ms. Samuelson calls those works "dead souls.") Privacy is a big concern; scholars' use of books in the Google database could be monitored. The list goes on.

Academic librarians are also plenty worried about monopoly and invasion of privacy. The American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries filed formal comments with Judge Chin last week, asking him "to exercise vigorous oversight" of how the settlement is put into place if it's approved. They love the idea of access to millions of books but argue that "many of the features of the settlement, including the absence of competition for the new services, could compromise fundamental library values, including equity of access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom."...

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