Pamela Samuelson is the Richard M. Sherman ‘74 Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Samuelson has a new article available on SSRN, “Google Book Search and the Future of Books in Cyberspace” (forthcoming in the Minnesota Law Review).
The Google Book Search (GBS) initiative once promised to test the bounds of fair use, as the company started scanning millions of in-copyright books from the collections of major research libraries. The initial goal of this scanning was to make indexes of the books’ contents and to provide short snippets of book contents in response to pertinent search queries. The Authors Guild and five trade publishers sued Google in the fall of 2005 charging that this scanning activity was copyright infringement. Google defended by claiming fair use. Rather than litigating this important issue, however, the parties devised a radical plan to restructure the market for digital books, which was announced on October 28, 2008, by means of a class action settlement of the lawsuits. Approval of this settlement would give Google – and Google alone – a license to commercialize all out-of-print books and to make up to 20 per cent of their contents available in response to search queries (unless rights holders expressly forbade this).
This article discusses the glowingly optimistic predictions about the future of books in cyberspace promulgated by proponents of the GBS settlement and contrasts them with six categories of serious reservations that have emerged about the settlement. These more pessimistic views of GBS are reflected in the hundreds objections and numerous amicus curiae briefs filed with the court responsible for determining whether to approve the settlement. GBS poses risks for publishers, academic authors and libraries, professional writers, and readers as well as for competition and innovation in several markets and for the cultural ecology of knowledge. Serious concerns have also been expressed about the GBS settlement as an abuse of the class action process because it usurps legislative prerogatives. The article considers what might happen to the future of books in cyberspace if the GBS deal is not approved and recommends that regardless of whether the GBS settlement is approved, a consortium of research libraries ought to develop a digital database of books from their collections that would enhance access to books without posing the many risks to the public interest that the GBS deal has created.