Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Google Public Policy Blog: On Message, Off the Mark

Adam Smith, director of product management for Google Books, posts today at the Google Public Policy Blog. (And, yes, that's his real name.) The link is

"Over the last few weeks we've heard a number of questions," Smith says in the opening to a promised series defending the proposed class action settlement with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild.

What a bland way of acknowledging that the settlement has been delayed for four months by the judge, in the face of a firestorm of protests from every angle across the globe, and is being probed by the Justice Department on antitrust grounds.

If this is the best Google can do, then its project is not ready for prime time. The company needs to confront the criticisms of the deal head-on if it wants to win the hearts and minds of public-access champions; it can't simply recycle press releases. Is Google entitled to use legal jiu-jitsu to turn a defense of an infringement lawsuit into a non-legislated compulsory license for the profit of only one entity? Does a court have the authority to bless an arrangement with a self-appointed Books Rights Registry that offers terms less favorable to authors than those already offered by Google itself?

All good questions. All simply ignored.

Google should get itself unjoined from the Authors Guild's hip and open up the tent. There are lots of people of good will out there who are not out to destroy the potential advantages of a legally sanitized Google Books, but to reap its potential for everyone.

James Grimmelman, the New York Law School professor who is seeking to intervene on behalf of "orphan works" and related issues, acknowledges that the settlement as written would be "an improvement in the status quo," but rightly says that's not good enough. The settlement, Grimmelman adds, "creates two new entities -- the Book Rights Registry Leviathan and the Google Book Search Behemoth -- with dangerously concentrated power.... We the public have a right to demand that those entities be subject to healthy, pro-competitive oversight."

From my standpoint, there's a lot more to say about the flaws of the settlement, but this is where authors should be focusing right now. It's a rare public-education moment for us to demonstrate to consumers that creators are their friends, not their enemies, in the new information age.

Irv Muchnick


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