Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Google: somewhat less a copyright scofflaw

Google has a reached a settlement with book publishers and authors that objected to its unilateral decision to scan their copyrighted works and give limited amounts of content away to the world with the Google Books program. The settlement, which includes a $125 million payment, settles a three-year-old lawsuit against the four-year-old service by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

Google has posted online the official announcement and the official spin. The publishers have their own, more detailed FAQ. As the WSJ notes, the settlement is not yet final:

If approved, the agreement would expand online access to millions of in-copyright books and other written materials from the collections of libraries participating in Google Book Search - a project intended to make millions of books searchable via the Web - while also compensating copyright owners for allowing online access to their works.

Google's $125 million payment will be partially used to establish a Book Rights Registry under which holders of U.S. copyrights can register their works and receive compensation from institutional subscriptions, book sales and ad revenues. The settlement will also be used to resolve existing claims by authors.
The actual settlement seems a masterful compromise of rights. It could even serve as a precedent for settling Viacom’s lawsuit against YouTube.

Under this proposed solution, Google (which knows how to index information and run online systems) will sell access to pages beyond the free ones and share the proceeds with the copyright owners. This could be a new, permanent business model for IP holders to obtain compensation for their copyrighted material and thus compensation (and an incentive) for their time and efforts.

While that is all good, I’m still distressed by how we got here. This goes far beyond the Guy Kawasaki mantra of “ask forgiveness, not permission.”

Instead, it’s more like “I’m doing what I damn well please: if you don’t like it, sue me!” Or more precisely “I will unilaterally determine what is a proper use of the IP of others and act accordingly, without waiting for a license or any other agreement with the IP owner. The only recourse of those who disagree is litigation.”

This of course reflects the hubris of billionaires (with their own private 757) who feel entitled to effect social change on their own time schedule. So far all we have is a vague promise of good intentions (“do no evil”). Worse, there’s something profoundly undemocratic about such arrogance: it’s not a big leap from that sort of behavior to a band of oligarchs who decide to run a country.

No comments: