Judgment Day for the Google Book Pact

Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers (in unlikely fraternity) have bowed to the very large number of petitioners who oppose their agreement that would profoundly affect the digital future of books. A hearing  long scheduled for October 7, before District Court Judge Denny Chin in New York is now expected to be postponed while all concerned consider objections to the accord  reached a year ago that gave Google vast rights to scan books and devised a system for paying authors and publishers for the right to do so. The pact--actually the settlement of a suit filed by the authors and publishers to stop Google from what they saw as uncontrolled digitizing of their work would be a fundamental step in the world of letters' adjustment to all the new ways literature and information are distributed.

At its core, the meaning of the agreement is that Google, the preeminent repository of digitized data and the foremost organizer of access to it, has acknowledged the obligation to compensate providers of content for use of their material in digital forms. The pell-mell scanning of millions of books from libraries and other sources represented an overwhelming threat to the printed word; comparable to what happened when music lost its moorings as unauthorized file sharing replaced royalties and sales. As the news universe discovered to its profound chagrin, once the concept of free use of content is established, it is damnably hard to reverse course. The Google settlement provides payment now and procedures for the future that assure the rights of those who create material to benefit from the use of it. Bravo to that.

But the accord also--in the view of its critics, led by the Justice Department--gives Google far too much of a role in determining the digital fate of an enormous trove of books; in effect, an immediate virtual monopoly and too much of an advantage going forward. In the year since the agreement was announced, the image of Google as the happy face of all matters digital has turned into something less appealing: a dominant corporate enterprise that has used its collective brilliance in technology and marketing to suppress competition while it prospers as others do not.

Justice, reflecting a tougher stance on anti-trust issues in the Obama administration, has initiated reviews of Google's activities on several fronts. Last week, the department submitted to Judge Chin its findings, which reflect its own negotiations with Google and the other signatories to the pact intended to make the agreement more broadly acceptable. On Tuesday afternoon, the parties in the settlement asked the court to postpone the hearing because, they said, the deal will have to be amended. Over time, Google had already made a number of concessions that provide privacy protections to users, access to digitized works by competitors such as Amazon, and accommodating differences between European and American copyright practices. Given Justice's continuing opposition, the signatories clearly decided they needed to do more. In any case, the most determined opponents to the agreement are adamant that it should be rejected outright.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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