Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Publishing: Google's Monopoly on Knowledge?

You may have heard, at least in passing, about the class action copyright suit against Google that was settled late last year. In a very interesting article on the subject in the February 12, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books Harvard Professor Robert Darnton sounds a warning.

"As an unintended consequence [of the settlement] Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly––a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information."

The lawsuit was brought in 2005 in response to Google's digitizing the contents of major research libraries for online access and text searchability. Some of what was being digitized was already in the public domain but much was still under copyright. According to the settlement, as layed out by Darnton, a "Books Rights Registry" will be set up that works as follows:

  • Google will continue to allow free access to digitized texts already in the public domain
  • For copyrighted texts institutions will have to subscribe to a data bank which they can then make available on only one computer for free access
  • Individuals may also purchase access through a consumer license
  • Google will then retain about a third  of the income with the registry distributing the rest among copyright holders
According to the article the settlement amounts to a monopoly for Google, because now anyone else attempting to digitize books would have to bring a separate suit. Not being a lawyer I really don't know if that will be the settlement's ultimate effect. However, if it is then I do share the author's concerns about a possible monopoly, but for different reasons.

Darnton seems most concerned about cost. Early in the article he notes how "commercial publishers discovered they could make a fortune by selling subscriptions to the [professional] journals" purchased by institutions and research libraries. He mentions a staggering annual subscription of over $39K for the Journal of Comparative Neurology. His concern is that, like the commercial publishers, Google could hook professional users on having this information available in research libraries, then up the price.

Price is always a concern when dealing with monopolies on commodities or services, but when dealing with information and knowledge, there's an even bigger concern I was surprised the author never touched on. What if research libraries get "hooked" on no longer having to store hard or microfiche copies of these texts and Google then becomes selective of which texts it will make available in the data bank?

The Bush administration was a lesson in how government can attempt to control information, as they did with Global Warming. We also saw how easy it is for media and government to climb into the same bed. For all intents and purposes the media simply cheered from the sidelines during the build-up to the Iraq war and acquiesced to scripted press conferences where reporters played along, raising their hands as though they didn't already know who would be called on and what questions would be asked.

Now just imagine a world where researchers and professionals had become accustomed to reading the latest literature in their field on that one computer terminal at the research library they frequent and that the original print versions (if there are any in the near future) are stored away in dusty archives somewhere and that one company controls which documents end up online. I find that scenario pretty frightening.

As Darnton notes, government policy and culture have lagged light years behind the World Wide Web. To this point, though, the concern has not been limited access leading to high profitability but one of free and open access leading to low profitability. We've been saved by the propensity of the "techno-nerd" to put access before profit. That is, until Google cut a deal with China agreeing to censor itself rather than pull out of the huge Chinese market. Also, the last administration in its attempts to control information, seemed to write off the Internet as the tool of an uninvolved cyber-generation. Not so with the current administration that uses online communications as much or more than TV and radio.

So far that has been a force for good, making more information on the workings of government available for anyone to find. However, in the wrong hands it could also be the proverbial ticking time bomb. If one company held a virtual monopoly on the dispersing of information, a government that was so inclined would have a much easier time limiting access to that information when the monopoly was willing to put profit before ethics (as monopolies have a tendency to do).

I'm no expert on copyright law and neither is Robert Darnton, so this could end up to be a tempest in a teapot. Still, it provides food for thought and begs, at the least, for some forward thinking.

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