Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Google Books and the Limits of Courts

Frank Pasquale

The Google Books litigation has inspired a lot of commentary on the web. As an early October fairness hearing approaches, a consensus appears to be building: the proposed settlement is too important and complex for a court to approve in its current form. Agent Lynn Chu has complained that "No one elected the[] 'class representatives' to represent America's tens of thousands of authors and publishers to convey their digital rights to Google." Pamela Samuelson, by all accounts one of the leading academics in American intellectual property law, has this to say:

The Google Book Search settlement will be, if approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern era [emphasis added]. . . . The Authors Guild has about 8000 members. OCLC has estimated that there are 22 million authors of books published in the U.S. since 1923 (the year before which books can be presumed to be in the public domain). Jan Constantine, a lawyer for the Authors Guild, is optimistic that authors and publishers of out-of-print books will sign up with the Registry, but there are many reasons to question this.

For one thing, the proposed settlement agreement implicitly estimates that only about 750,000 copyright owners will sign up with the Registry, at least in the near term. Second, many books are "orphans," that is, books whose rights holders cannot be located by a reasonably diligent search. Third, many easily findable rights holders, particularly academic authors, would much rather make their works available on an open access basis than to sign up with the Registry. Fourth, signing up with the Registry will not be a simple matter, since the Registry won't just take your word for it that you are the rights holder. You are going to have to prove your ownership claim.

The non-representativeness of the class is one ground on which it is possible to object to the proposed Book Search settlement. Other reasons to object or express concerns will be explored in subsequent articles. Objections must be filed with the court by September 4, 2009.

A suitable platform for hosting public discussions of the deal only launched a few weeks ago, thanks to the diligent efforts of James Grimmelmann (who is also organizing an academic conference on the issue in October). The proposed settlement raises a number of issues, which may only be addressed by extensive regulation of the project -- or a public alternative dedicated to serving those marginalized by the current proposal.

The issues fall into at least four categories:

1) Antitrust: Randal Picker, Christopher Suarez, and James Grimmelmann have addressed the proposed settlement's likely effects on competition in the field. On the surface, it appears that Google Books would be a good alternative to companies like Amazon and Elsevier, offering a new intermediary designed to drive down the cost of access to knowledge. However, academics have pointed out several specific terms of the proposed settlement that threaten to reduce competition in the field of digitized books in the long term.

2) Pricing: Here the basic worry is that Google Books could become like the big intermediaries criticized by the open access movement for excessive pricing of academic, scientific, and technical works. Universities have been burned in the past by nonchalantly accepting big publishers' mergers and growing control over a corpus of academic journals. Though Google is supposed to bargain on behalf of book users to reduce prices charged by book owners, the record of private insurers in accomplishing the same "middleman" role is not heartening.

The proposed settlement envisions that Google will stand between consumers and producers of knowledge. It will play a role similar to that of private insurers in standing between providers and patients—determining what access people get, how much they have to pay, etc. The worrisome aspect of that arrangement is that providers and private insurers are both very concentrated in the US, and consumers (i.e., the businesses and individuals who buy insurance plans) are not. That’s a key reason why the US spends so much more on health care than other industrialized nations, without getting better results, access, or quality.

I’d expect to see the same dynamics play out in the context of books if this settlement goes through, because it promises to create parallel levels of concentration in the Registry (imagine all hospitals combined into one bargaining unit) and Google (similarly, imagine a merger of Cigna, United Health, and WellPoint). Bilateral monopolies aren't pretty for those on the outside -- think of ever-rising ticket prices for fans that result from the negotiations of the players' union and baseball owners. That's why I think a "public option" is as important in digitized books as it is in health care. And at the very least, ongoing antitrust supervision, like that provided for similar schemes in the past, should apply here.

3) Privacy: Here I can't do better than EPIC, a leading group on these issues. Here are their concerns:

Civil liberties organizations are urging Internet users to tell Google to adopt privacy protections for the Google Book Search. A judge in New York will determine later this year whether to approve the proposed settlement that would establish the service and give Google access to detailed personal information without any privacy safeguards.

The chart at the bottom of that page shows how the settlement threatens the "right to read anonymously."

4) Cultural Power: Authors are concerned about Google’s power over the distribution, visibility, and pricing of their work. The Registry’s proposed leadership is not sufficiently representative of the wide range of publishers and authors. Perhaps a) different types of books should be subject to different types of boards of leadership, and b) all decisions about distribution, visibility, and pricing be made in an open manner. As for 4a), I think academic author in particular should worry about their books being subject to the types of revenue strategies pursued by, say, romance novelists or self-help authors. We need a separate board to handle academic books, or at least university press books. As for 4b): Google will counter that it needs to be secretive here, as it is in so many other areas, because unsavory actors could game the system. But Google should at least concede that concerns about gaming are lower in the book space than in the search space, since search engine optimizers are unlikely to publish fake books to game the system. Also, there could be a relaxation of these terms of openness as long as there is some open alternative.

In conclusion: for me, the key problems law can address are

a) extraordinary pricing power by Google/Registry alliance,
b) lack of transparency about how terms will be set,
c) lack of a public alternative to serve the people that Google fails to serve, and
d) threats to privacy

How do we solve these problems? I would propose the following responses:

a) guarantee of some form of free or subsidized access for those making under 300% of federal poverty level wages,
b) either open all Registry proceedings or at least follow Danny Weitzner’s approach to “extreme factfinding” here,
c) condition the settlement on either i) Google’s giving a copy of the digitized corpus to the government in exchange for the cost of scanning and a reasonable rate of return and/or ii) the government requiring all works copyrighted after 2009 to be digitally deposited and part of a corpus that the government could operate and make available on its own terms, and
d) allow EPIC and others to negotiate with relevant FTC policymakers to build in privacy safeguards.

I know these terms are all likely to be controversial. A public option in particular should respect the autonomy and growth of private search in this field -- the organization of knowledge is an exciting field for private sector innovation. But I hope one thing is clear: it would be unjust to allow the parties to settle the case without giving a wide range of stakeholders an opportunity to fully vent their concerns. And given the likely need to involve the FTC, DOJ, and Copyright Office in ongoing supervision of the settlement terms, it is time for some inter-branch cooperation and coordination on the issue.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.