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Librarians Ask DoJ to Intervene in Google Books Case

Three prominent library groups have asked the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) to "advise the court" supervising the proposed settlement of a class action suit against Google Books by several organizations purporting to represent authors.

The American Library Association (ALA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Association of Research Libraries (ARA) want the DoJ to weigh in on proposed aspects of the settlement that could have specific impacts on libraries.

These include the pricing of institutional subscriptions to the Book Rights Registry that is envisioned to be set up under the settlement, as well as the selection of the directors of that Registry. The library groups stressed that "(W)e do not oppose the court's approval of the settlement. We believe that the settlement has the potential to provide unprecedented public access to a digital library containing millions of books." But the library groups as well as others who oppose at least some parts of the the settlement fear that Google will maintain an effective monopoly over access to the millions of out-of-print books it has been scanning.

In their letter, the librarians stated "The cost of creating such a library and Google's significant lead time advantage suggest that no other entity will create a competing digital library for the foreseeable future. In the absence of competition for the services it will enable, the settlement could compromise fundamental library values such as equity of access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom."

Some opponents of the settlement have suggested that Google may also become potentially dominant in the sales of digital books in the future. However, I tend to doubt that book sales will form a significant part of Google's business model.

Rather, the search giant will probably focus on owning the book (and magazine) search business as it does online content search generally today. The resulting data about what people search for will help it build a formidable market share, which in turn will allow it to dominate the advertising revenue that will be collected against e-Books in the future.

This type of business model is all about scale. Belatedly, would-be competitors to Google like Yahoo and Microsoft may charge behind the leader gamely, trying to catch the scraps the search whale leaves behind, and that's simply in today's web-page-indexing world. No company has invested anything near what Google has to convert books from the pre-digital world into searchable keyword clusters that collectively represent one of the greatest research repositories ever created -- or even imagined.

That's why, despite many troubling aspects of the proposed settlement in the Google Books case, I expect it to be eventually aproved by the courts and allowed to stand by the DoJ. If enough checks and balances are imposed on the deal, Google will still be able to attain its main business goals and build a lucrative new revenue stream, while the rest of us gain access to information we heretofore have been able to locate only imperfectly, laboriously, and inconsistently.

In their letter, the library groups urged the Antitrust Division of the DoJ to treat the settlement as if it were a " de facto consent decree" to an anti-trust action it had taken on its own. With indications that the Obama administration is taking a much more active approach to anti-trust actions across the board, that would seem to be a fairly likely outcome of the current controversy.

A decision by the court supervising the case is expected next month.

Recent Bnet Media coverage of the Google Books deal and related issues:
July 8 The New Book: An Interactive, Networked Gathering Place Writing in Humanities magazine, a bimonthly review published by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Steve Moyer has taken a detailed look at the future of books and of the act of reading itself.

July 6 Amazon's Plan to Insert Ads into e-Books "Leading up to the big holiday weekend, Amazon quietly applied for patents to insert ads into e-Books, including old and out-of-print publications, as well as in newly printed versions available via the curious phrase "on-demand printing..."

May 15 E-Books Reach a "Tipping Point," Triggering Explosive Growth "My email in-box is humming this week with people sharing anecdotes about the growth in popularity of e-books..."

April 28 Momentum Shifts Against Google in Old Books Controversy "A number of new developments in the proposed settlement of a class action suit between Google and some authors over who will control the publishing rights of millions of out-of-print books indicate that the growing opposition to the terms of that settlement are gaining momentum..."

April 17 Time to Slow Down that Google Book Search Deal "As the proposed settlement by Google of a class-action lawsuit by authors over its Google Book Search rushes toward an impending judicial resolution, it's become apparent that it's time to pull the emergency brake on this one..."

Mar. 5 Writers, Sign Up for your Check from Google Books! "Whatever published authors may think about Google's ambitious plan to digitize more or less every book ever published, the company's recent settlement of a class-action lawsuit with publishers and authors creates a potential new revenue stream, albeit a small one, for us that I believe is worth pursuing..."

Jan. 25 The Future of Books "As the age of print approaches its final years, its most treasured form -- the book -- stands much like Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, surrounded, doomed, and all too soon to be slaughtered unmercifully..."

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