An Objection to the Google Book Settlement by Academic Authors

Dr. Pamela Samuelson has been one of the most vocal, and most intelligent, critics of the proposed Google Book Search settlement agreement. She has written, for example, on how the settlement threatens orphan works and represents a “major restructuring of the book industry,” largely to the benefit of Google, the Authors Guild and AAP, and their lawyers.

More recently, Samuelson has questioned whether the Authors Guild and AAP fairly represented the interests of all authors and publishers during the negotiations that led up to the settlement agreement. She notes:

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).

Along with this disparity is the fact that not all authors write and publish with the same motivations. Compare academic authors, who often write with the hopes of spreading knowledge (with little to no direct compensation), versus many traditional authors who hope to provide an escape or entertainment for profit (both worthy goals, btw). As Samuelson noted on NPR earlier this week:

University of California law professor Pamela Samuelson says the Authors Guild doesn’t represent the interests of academic authors, either. Samuelson doesn’t want money for her work — she just wants people to see it.

“[The Authors Guild doesn’t] share the academic values that I think would lead people like me to prefer and want to maximize public access rather than maximize revenues,” she says.

This is a very important concern: the settlement agreement, as negotiated, does not sufficiently represent my needs and concerns as an academic author. Access to knowledge is paramont; profit is secondary.

Because of this, I’ve joined other academic authors in signing a letter to the judge ruling on the proposed settlement, penned by Dr. Samuelson, that outlines this significant fault in the settlement agreement.

While acknowledging that the Google Book Search project potentially represents “extraordinarily valuable public good with the aim of greatly enhancing public access to the knowledge”, the letter expresses that “If approved, the settlement will fundamentally transform the cultural ecology of public access to books; yet, we fear that this may not be in entirely beneficial ways.”

Specifically, the letter discusses three primary concerns about the proposed settlement that are “unfair to academic authors and researchers or pose serious risks for harm to academic author and researcher interests”:

  1. The overarching concern that neither the Authors Guild nor the individual plaintiff-authors in the Authors Guild v. Google case have fairly and adequately represented the interests of academic authors during the litigation or in the course of negotiations that led up to the proposed settlement.
  2. The general opacity of the settlement agreement, and the parties’ intentions with respect to it, that have made it difficult for many authors, especially academic authors, to make well-informed decisions about how to respond to it.
  3. Concern that the Settlement Agreement is private legislation in the guise of a class action settlement.

The closing paragraph aptly sums up the tenor of the entire document:

Whatever the outcome of the fairness hearing, we believe strongly that the public good is served by the existence of digital repositories of books, such as the GBS corpus.  It would just be better for Google not to have a monopoly on it.  The future of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books is too important to leave in the hands of one company and one registry that will have a de facto monopoly over a huge corpus of digital books and rights in them.  Google has yet to accept that its creation of this substantial a public good brings with it public trust responsibilities that go well beyond its corporate slogan about not being evil.

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