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Stalking the giant
Thursday, April 9, 2009
SOME STORIES TAKE a long time to unwind. And with the quasi-mythic fable of that ever-growing giant Google versus Lilliputian efforts to cut it down to size, the tale seems unending.
It’s now nearly four years ago, when this column was still in short pants, and existed only on paper (in the am New York newspaper) that I first wrote of a “bitter contest” coming soon in lower Manhattan’s Federal District Court, as the Association of American Publishers and the Authors' Guild began suing the big web search-engine from Mountain View, California.
They were claiming copyright infringement in Google’s vastly ambitious plans to digitally copy books in the possession of major libraries with whom it had access deals, like the Bodleian at Oxford, the New York Public Library, Stanford University Library and others.
Well, now that case is largely over … but the fight isn’t. A settlement was reached last Fall, and authors and publishers appear satisfied enough with it - as it establishes a Book Rights Registry which will collect and distribute to writers and publishers whatever revenue may be generated through digital search (even with out-of-print books, which were the focus of the lawsuit). That's to say 63% of such revenue will be distributed, anyway -- 37% is going to be kept by Google.
The Guild is now using its website to promote the settlement among its scribing membership as a commendable solution … and Richard Sarnoff, the publishers’ group’s ex-chairman (and still co-chairman of Bertelsmann’s American division, who own Random House) is saying the settlement has established “a renewed access to a huge corpus of material that was essentially lost in the bowels of a few great libraries”.
But from one such great library, at Harvard (but one which had allowed Google to digitize only a small number, 40,000, out of its 15 million books) has come a swelling protest.
A couple of months ago, Robert Darnton (above right) the historian and head of Harvard’s library system, employed that notable campaigning venue, the New York Review of Books, under a broad-brush headline, “Google and the Future of Books”, to argue in short that “Google will be a monopoly” – something he and many research library stalwarts like him regard as highly dangerous. I say he argued that “in short”, because in characteristic NYRB style he actually fired off some 5,000 words, not counting footnotes.
More journalistically the New York Times took the matter up, albeit with some of that Old Gray Lady’s other-worldly, lack of alacrity. It took until this week for the controversy to hit the Times’ front page. In this more concise piece, by the paper’s Silicon Valley-based business writer Miguel Helft (ex-San Jose Mercury, the valley’s own newspaper) Darnton was the first person quoted and he inevitably figured as the key protestor, which in essence he is.
(I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that Darnton’s brother is a recent Culture Editor of the Times – John Darnton, previously a distinguished foreign correspondent, and latterly the author of best-selling books, including a recent murder mystery that’s set in a scarcely-disguised Times newsroom. The Darntons are quite a media family. Robert’s niece, and John’s daughter, Kyra Darnton, is a producer for 60 Minutes at CBS News. And pater familias to them all was Byron Darnton, father of Robert and John, and a valiant Times war reporter - killed in 1942 by an American bomb dropped off the coast of New Guinea.)
More media exposure for the digitization debate is bound to be forthcoming. The next news-peg in the saga – which one of the anti-trust analysts I talked with likened to those interminable legal episodes making up Charles Dickens’ sad epic Bleak House – will be when a federal judge formally reviews the Google-Publishers-Authors settlement in June.
Critical submissions to the judge are being orchestrated in part by a team in the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. Its finances for this case come, by the way, from Microsoft. (No part of the Microsoft-vs-Google contest of giants, we can be sure - can’t we?)
This multifaceted story will not end soon. Victorian parallels may not absolutely apply in these days of internet speed, but I do recall that the central “Jarndyce & Jarndyce” case in Bleak House was based on true-life cases being heard in London’s Chancery Court - and some of these are on record as lasting thirty-six years or more.
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