GBS and Students: Derek Slater of Google on the Democratization of Culture

Although it is being modified, in the interest of better informing students about the Google Books Settlement, Students for Free Culture has solicited the thoughts of a variety of experts who are providing guest posts reflecting on how the settlement will likely impact students.

In this guest post, Derek Slater of Google explains why the settlement is a boon for students and the democratization of culture.

Google Books and our proposed settlement agreement help fulfill copyright’s core objective — opening up access to knowledge and creativity. If approved by the Southern District Court of New York, the settlement will give anyone, anywhere in the U.S., access to millions of books that today are only accessible at a few large universities. Google Books can already help students and scholars track down hard-to-find books, and under this agreement they will be able to read many of those works online as well.

In this way, “[the settlement] will help tear down the geographic and socio-economic barriers that deprive many Americans of equal educational opportunities,” as the United States Students Association stated in a letter to the court. Numerous voices from the civil rights, disability, library and education communities, representing tens of millions of Americans, also strongly support the agreement because it will help equalize access to information.

You can find more specifics about the agreement and its benefits here, but these groups and individuals — the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Federation for the Blind, National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, Professor Gregory Crane, and many more — explain the benefits to students better than I ever could.

I want to turn my attention to why Students for Free Culture in particular should care. SFC is among the leading voices for the born-digital generation when it comes to copyright. You have not simply pushed for legislation and hoped that Congress will eventually save the day. Instead, you’ve started campaigns to democratize culture at your own schools, and urged technology companies and content creators to build innovative, win-win solutions that meet users’ evolving values and expectations.

The settlement represents this sort of win-win, a practical way to address difficult problems. This case started when rightsholders sued Google for digitizing libraries’ collections. While Google fully believes that this is an example of fair use that would have been upheld in court (and the settlement does not compromise fair use in any way), we settled the lawsuits because it ensures greater access to out-of-print books and broad benefits for the reading public, libraries, rightsholders, and innovators. With strong privacy protections, users will be able to browse and buy digital copies of millions of books that otherwise might be left behind in the digital age.

For too long, copyright law and a thicket of legal uncertainties have locked up most out-of-print books. As copyright scholar Mark Lemley explains, the problem here is generally not that these books are “orphaned,” with rightsholders that cannot be found.  Instead, they have two findable parents – an author and a publisher – but sorting out who actually owns the rights may be hard. Because the transaction costs of licensing these books is high relative to their uncertain market value, these “neglected” works simply gather dust on libraries’ shelves.

The settlement not only enables Google to make out-of-print works accessible, but it will also make it much easier for anyone to license them. It establishes a non-profit Book Rights Registry that will actively look for rightsholders and can help resolve ownership disputes. As rightsholders come forward, the Registry will make information publicly available about which books have been claimed and by whom, and rightsholders can authorize the Registry to license third-parties, including Google’s competitors.  Over time, we believe a significant portion of books will be claimed.

Of course, a small fraction of books will remain truly orphaned. While these books will be among the least commercially valuable, there is still a strong public benefit in opening access to them, and the settlement is one step to that end.  In addition, as we said in our testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, we will let any other book retailer resell access to each out-of-print book, including orphans, that Google can provide access to under the settlement.

That said, this settlement is not a panacea for the challenge of orphan books or orphan works more generally. Google has long supported effective legislation that would make it easier for everyone to use orphan works, and this is still a top priority of ours.

Some have taken the well-intentioned position that legislative reform would be preferable to approval of the settlement. But, as David Sohn of the Center for Democracy of Technology discussed in a blogpost last week, this misconceives the settlement as a substitute for, rather than a complement to, legislation. And it would mean that these books remain locked up, as everyone waits for Congress to address not only orphans but also the far larger category of neglected books.

With the democratization of so much of our culture within reach, it would be tragic to turn the perfect into the enemy of the good.

— Derek Slater

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