What's at Stake in the Google Books Ruling Other Than Books

It has ramifications for data mining, antitrust and more

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On Wednesday, a federal judge's rejection of Google's settlement with the Authors' Guild raised a number of questions about the search giant's massive digital library of books. In scholarly circles, the ongoing suit has long been depicted as a debate weighing the benefit of Google making available tens of thousands of copyrighted but out-of-print books against the rights of those holding the copyrights to those out-of-print titles. However, as some observers of the case are beginning to point out, the case is about more than just orphaned books. Here's what else is at stake:

The future of data mining  Joseph Esposito, a consultant who advises scholarly publishers, spoke to the staff at Inside Higher Ed yesterday about the what the case means for technology companies. "The higher education community flatters itself to think that the Google mass digitization project and the proposed settlement was about them,” he continued, “but the real object in this case from the beginning was the establishment of legal precedents for future disputes about copyright and the access to texts by machines, in part motivated by the prospect of the commercialization of data-mining techniques."

Trusting Google  Matt Peckham at Technologizer emphasizes the power that Authors' Guild was about to give to Google: "Does all of human knowledge registered as text 'want to be free'?" he asks. "It’s probably the wrong question. The right one is: Do we want a single strictly commercial entity holding the e-library door and key to every novel, history, treatise, and manual ever written, including how it’s indexed, presented, and shared?"

The competition factor  In the race to build the world's biggest library (a field in which Google is about as strong as it gets), the guild's deal with Google would give it a huge advantage over its competitors, worried Judge Denny Chin yesterday. It would "arguably give Google control over the search market" while rewarding the company for copying copyrighted materials without permission. And this is not something that's lost on the FairSearch Coalition, a group of travel sites including Microsoft that routinely tries to challenge Google on antitrust issues. "Today’s ruling reaffirms the Justice Department was right to take on Google on this issue and that enforcing antitrust laws is essential to ensuring that Google not be allowed to harm consumers or competition by illegally extending its dominance in online search," wrote the group.

Also, these books never really mattered in the first place  According to Esposito, many of the out-of-print copyrighted books were out-of-print for a reason. "It is widely assumed that the digitization of so many books would have a significant positive benefit for higher education,” Esposito told Inside Higher Ed. “I think that is just plain wrong. There is a reason books went out of print in the past, a reason that orphans are orphans. These are books of marginal value to higher education."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.