May 21, 2009

Untangling Orphaned Works in the Proposed Google Book Search Settlement

Greetings. In coming months a number of important court decisions will be made regarding the controversial proposed Google Book Search settlement [1][2].

Related concerns expressed by various parties include privacy issues, competition effects, authors' rights, and other related topics.

The proposed settlement is rather complex, and I won't attempt to dig too far into the details here.

But on the whole, I am in favor of the proposed settlement. A key aspect of this whole controversy is to find some reasonable mechanism to get orphaned works into "circulation" again -- that is, broadly accessible. Orphaned works that are effectively unavailable cease to exist in a practical sense, and the work of their authors is lost.

I recently used Google Book Search to explore whether waterboarding was traditionally considered to be torture (answer: yes) -- and I found a great reference in an 1895 (copyright expired) book via Book Search. Without Google Book Search, that volume would have likely sat unseen on a forgotten shelf for -- well, maybe forever.

The main dispute relating to Book Search in respect to orphaned works appears to be the effective exclusivity that the settlement appears to grant Google in this regard, as the entity doing the scanning and the maintaining of the related database services (both decidedly nontrivial tasks).

While in theory other organizations would appear free to make their own arrangements and do their own scanning, the latter in particular makes little sense to me -- why even consider scanning books over and over again, with associated handling, wear and tear?

Keeping in mind that I am a proponent of the Google Book Search settlement, one possibility that I think might be worthy of some consideration would be to allow for various non-Google entities to have some form of direct access to the Google Book Search orphaned works scanned images on a reasonable basis, so that competing indexing and access systems could be more easily established without subjecting books to re-scanning.

I am not suggesting that this access should be without associated compensation to Google. But if the proposed settlement becomes jeopardized due to this particular set of concerns, a means to help establish a more competitive environment relating to orphaned works does seem both possible and practical.

Perhaps such steps simply won't be deemed necessary by the courts. But if this is the sort of price that must be paid in order to get a settlement approved and these books online, it's something that we may need to be thinking about.


Posted by Lauren at May 21, 2009 04:29 PM | Permalink
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