It’s one of the rare moments when a Big alliance is formed by 3 heavyweights to fight Google’s attempt to create what could be the world’s largest virtual library.
Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo are in talks to sign up to the Open Book Alliance being spearheaded by the Internet Archive. They oppose a legal settlement that could make Google the main source for many online works.
“Google is trying to monopolise the library system,” the Internet Archive’s founder Brewster Kahle told BBC News. “If this deal goes ahead, they’re making a real shot at being ‘the’ library and the only library.”
Back in 2008, the search giant reached an agreement with publishers and authors to settle two lawsuits that charged the company with copyright infringement for the unauthorised scanning of books.
In that settlement, Google agreed to pay $125m (£76m) to create a Book Rights Registry, where authors and publishers could register works and receive compensation. Authors and publishers would get 70% from the sale of these books with Google keeping the remaining 30%.
Google would also be given the right to digitise orphan works. These are works whose rights-holders are unknown, and are believed to make up an estimated 50-70% of books published after 1923.
Comments on the deal have to be lodged by 4 September. In early October, a judge in the Southern district of New York will consider whether or not to approve the class-action suit.
In a separate development, the US Department of Justice is conducting an anti-trust investigation into the impact of the agreement.
Critics have claimed the settlement will transform the future of the book industry and of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books.
The Internet Archive scans around 1000 books a day at 30 cents a page
“The techniques we have built up since the enlightenment of having open access, public support for libraries, lots of different organisational structures, lots of distributed ownership of books that can be exchanged, resold and repackaged in different ways – all of that is being thrown out in this particular approach,” warned Mr Kahle.
The non-profit Internet Archive has long been a vocal opponent of this agreement. It is also in the business of scanning books and has digitised over 1.5 million to date. All are available free.
As the 4 September deadline approaches, the number of groups and organisations voicing their opposition is growing. But with three of the world’s best-known technology companies joining the chorus, the Open Book Alliance can expect to make headlines the world over.
Microsoft and Yahoo have confirmed their participation. However, Amazon has so far declined to comment because the alliance has not yet been formally launched.
“All of us in the coalition are oriented to foster a vision for a more competitive marketplace for books,” said Peter Brantley, the Internet Archive’s director of access. “We feel that if approved, Google would earn a court-sanctioned monopoly and the exploitation of a comprehensive collection of books from the 20th Century.”
Much of the focus of the proposed settlement has been on anti-trust and anti-competitive concerns, but just as many are worried about privacy.
Privacy is a big concern for critics
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU of Northern California and the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group wrote to Google to ask the company to “assure Americans that Google will maintain the security and freedom that library patrons have long had: to read and learn about anything… without worrying that someone is looking over their shoulder or could retrace their steps”.
“We simply don’t like the settlement in its current form,” said Consumer Watchdog advocate John Simpson.
“There are serious questions about privacy and Google seems to be taking the view ‘let us put this in place and we will do the right thing down the road’. That is simply not good enough.”
The American Libraries Association (ALA) agrees.
“We do think the product in essence is good but the proposed settlement asks us to trust Google and the other parties a little too much,” the ALA’s associate director Corey Williams told BBC News.
“When it comes to privacy, the agreement is silent on the issue and with regard to what Google intends to do with the data it collects. It’s a great idea but it requires more trust than I think we feel comfortable being able to extend at this point,” said Ms Williams.
In its defence, Google has argued that the deal brings great benefits to authors and will make millions of out-of-print books widely available online and in libraries.
In a statement, the company said: “The Google Books settlement is injecting more competition into the digital books space, so it’s understandable why our competitors might fight hard to prevent more competition.”
The author said she is not surprised by the reaction to the settlment
Despite the increasing tide of criticism over the settlement, there are some who believe there is not that much to fear.
Michelle Richmond is the author of New York Times best seller The Year of Fog, which is also being turned into a movie starring Rachel Weiss.
“The thing I keep hearing from authors is ‘I don’t know what this settlement really means’. But this is the brave new world and we don’t really know where it is going,” Ms Richmond told BBC News
“Most authors work for so little and start from the point of we are doing this for the love it. But when there is this company that has nothing to do with the creation of the book or its publication, I think a lot of authors are concerned about this being a portal to greater access to their work without compensation for writers.”