Will Google be a benign foster-parent? Don’t bet on it

When you think about the way the academic world allowed itself to be hooked by the scientific periodical racketeers, it makes sense to be wary of any commercial outfit that looks like acquiring a monopoly of a valuable resource. The obvious candidate du jour is Google, which is busily scanning all those orphan works (i.e. works whose copyright owners cannot be found) in libraries in order to make them available to a grateful (academic) world. Some people are (rightly) suspicious and are going to challenge the legal settlement which Google negotiated with publishers in the US. At the JISC ‘Libraries of the Future’ event in Oxford last Thursday, Robert Darnton of Harvard (pictures above) said some perceptive things about the potential threats ahead. So it was interesting to see this piece in this morning’s NYT.

These critics say the settlement, which is subject to court approval, will give Google virtually exclusive rights to publish the books online and to profit from them. Some academics and public interest groups plan to file legal briefs objecting to this and other parts of the settlement in coming weeks, before a review by a federal judge in June.

While most orphan books are obscure, in aggregate they are a valuable, broad swath of 20th-century literature and scholarship.

Determining which books are orphans is difficult, but specialists say orphan works could make up the bulk of the collections of some major libraries.

Critics say that without the orphan books, no competitor will ever be able to compile the comprehensive online library Google aims to create, giving the company more control than ever over the realm of digital information. And without competition, they say, Google will be able to charge universities and others high prices for access to its database.

The settlement, “takes the vast bulk of books that are in research libraries and makes them into a single database that is the property of Google,” said Robert Darnton, head of the Harvard University library system. “Google will be a monopoly.”

Yep. I’ve always thought that Google will be Microsoft’s successor as the great anti-trust test for the Obama Administration. I hope the DoJ is tooling up for it.