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U.S. Justice Department Opposes Google Books Settlement

Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 06:25 PM EDT

Wired reports: “The Justice Department, citing anti-trust and copyright concerns, asked a federal court judge late Friday to reject a controversial settlement that would have allowed Google to cut through knotty copyright issues in order to create the library of the future.”

The Justice Department’s concerns mirror some of the sentiments expressed by Harvard law professor John Palfrey when a seminar last spring took up the settlement. As the wiki record of that week notes, Palfrey suggested improvements to the settlement that would allow the immensely valuable resource to come into existence without hurting the prospects for future innovation.

Professor Palfrey suggests three generalized improvements to the settlement that would begin to address many of the concerns that have been raised:

  • Ensure the possibility of a meaningful competitive landscape, such that second-comers are not barred from success.
  • Establish a means by which the public can have a meaningful level of control over the workings of the Book Rights Registry.
  • Create a system of periodic review for the settlement terms. This system would not need to involve periodic wholesale review of the entire settlement by the courts; it could instead merely involve libraries negotiating sunset provisions for individual works with publishers, authors, and other rights holders.

As a researcher, I have already found the Google Books machinery to be of great use. I have used it to access sources I did not have space to bring along while studying in Beijing last summer. I have used the full-text search available for some texts to double-check citations when preparing papers. And I have been able to point friends and family to specific passages of books without scanning or retyping the text by hand.

My additional hope is that the restrictive provisions in the settlement that regulate how the data can be used can be avoided at the library terminals that form part of the public good derived from Google’s gargantuan scanning project. If the vast amount of information being gathered can be processed in yet unforeseen ways, computation-based research may reveal hidden value in a corpus of text. If we are restricted to search and display applications that replicate traditional reading, however, we will still fall short of the potential this information holds.