Robert Darnton recently published an essay in the New York Review of Books on the Google settlement. There has been much commentary in blogs, listserves, and print media. Below I reproduce a letter that I sent to the New York Review of Books, that they found to be far too long to publish. It is my understanding that they expect to publish a much-shortened revision. In any case, here’s what I had to say.


To the editors:

My colleague and friend Robert Darnton is a marvelous historian and an elegant writer. His utopian vision of a digital infrastructure for a new Republic of Letters (Google and the Future of Books, NYRB Feb. 12) makes the spirit soar. But his idea that there was any possibility that Congress and the Library of Congress might have implemented that vision in the 1990s is a utopian fantasy. At the same time, his view of the world that will likely emerge as a result of Google’s scanning of copyrighted works is a dystopian fantasy.

The Congress that Darnton imagines providing both money and changes in law that would have made out-of-print but in-copyright works (the great majority of print works published in the 20th century) digitally available on reasonable terms showed no interest in doing anything of the kind. Rather, it passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. (More recently, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which compels academic institutions to police the electronic environment for copyright infringement). This record is unsurprising; the committees that write copyright law are dominated by representatives who are beholden to Hollywood and other rights holders. Their idea of the Republic of Letters is one in which everyone who ever reads, listens, or views pretty much anything should pay to do so, every time.

The Supreme Court, which was given the opportunity to limit the extension of the term of copyright, which was already far too long (like Darnton, I think that 14 years renewable once is more than enough to achieve the purposes of copyright) refused to do so (with only two dissenters) in Eldred v. Ashcroft, decided in 2003. Instead, it upheld legislation that, contrary to the fundamental principles of copyright, provided rewards to authors who are long dead, preventing our cultural heritage from rising into the public domain,

In short, over the last decade and more, public policy has been consistently worse than useless in helping to make most of the works of the 20th century searchable and usable in digital form. This is the alternative against which we should evaluate Google Book Search and Google’s settlement with publishers and authors.

First, we should remember that until Google announced in 2004 that it was going to digitize the collections of a number of the world’s largest academic libraries, absolutely no one had a plan for mass digitization at the requisite scale. Well-endowed libraries, including Harvard and the University of Michigan, were embarked on digitization efforts at rates of less than ten thousand volumes per year. Google completely shifted the discussion to tens of thousands of volumes per week, with the result that overnight the impossible goal of digitizing (almost) everything became possible. We tend to think now that mass digitization is easy. Less than five years ago we thought it was impossibly expensive.

The heart of Darnton’s dystopian fantasy about the Google settlement follows directly from his view that “Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly … of access to information.” But Google doesn’t have anything like a monopoly over access to information in general, nor to the information in the books that are subject to the terms of the settlement. For a start (and of stunning public benefit in itself) up to 20% of the content of the books will be openly readable by anybody with an Internet connection, and all of the content will be indexed and searchable. Moreover, Google is required to provide the familiar “find it in a library” link for all books offered in the commercial product. That is, if after reading 20 percent of a book a user wants more and finds the price of on-line access to be too high, the reader will be shown a list of libraries that have the book, and can go to one of those libraries or employ inter-library loan. This greatly weakens the market power of Google’s product. Indeed, it is much better than the current state affairs, in which users of Google Book Search can read only snippets, not 20% of a book, when deciding whether what they’ve found is what they seek.

Darnton is also concerned that Google will employ the rapacious pricing strategies used by many publishers of current scientific literature, to the great cost of academic libraries, their universities, and, at least as important, potential users who are simply without access. But the market characteristics of current articles in science and technology are fundamentally different from those of the vast corpus of out-of-print literature that is held in university libraries and that will constitute the bulk of the works that Google will sell for the rights holders under the settlement agreement. The production of current scholarship in the sciences requires reliable and immediate access to the current literature. One cannot publish, nor get grants, without such access. The publishers know it, and they price accordingly. In particular the prices of individual articles are very high, supporting the outrageously expensive site licenses that are paid by universities. In contrast, because there are many ways of getting access to most of the books that Google will sell under the settlement, the consumer price will almost surely be fairly low, which will in turn lead to low prices for the site licenses. Again, “find it in a library,” coupled with extensive free preview, could not be more different than the business practices employed by many publishers of scientific, technical and medical journals.

There is another reason to believe that prices will not be “unfair”, which is that Google is far more interested in getting people to “google” pretty much everything than it is in making money through direct sales. The way to get people to come to the literature through Google is make it easy and rewarding to do so. For works in the public domain, Google already provides free access and will continue to do so. For works in the settlement, a well-designed interface, 20 percent preview, and reasonable prices are all likely to be part of the package. Additionally, libraries that don’t subscribe to the product will have a free public terminal accessible to their users. This increases the public good deriving from settlement both directly and by providing yet another distribution channel that does not require payment to Google or the rightsholders.

The settlement is far from perfect. The American practice of making public policy by private lawsuit is very far from perfect. But in the absence of the settlement – even if Google had prevailed against the suits by the publishers and authors – we would not have the digitized infrastructure to support the 21st century Republic of Letters. We would have indexes and snippets and no way to read any substantial amount of any of the millions of works at stake on line. The settlement gives us free preview of an enormous amount of content, and the promise of easy access to the rest, thereby greatly advancing the public good.

Of course I would prefer the universal library, but I am pretty happy about the universal bookstore. After all, bookstores are fine places to read books, and then to decide whether to buy them or go to the library to read some more.

Paul N. Courant

Note: This letter represents my personal views and not those of the University of Michigan, nor any of its libraries or departments.