March 31, 2011

Cornell Library’s Digitization Project Unaffected by Ruling Against Google

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Despite the support of the Cornell University Library, Google’s project to digitize every published work in history was dealt a substantial blow March 22 when a U.S. Court of Appeals judge rejected the proposed deal between Google and a party representing authors and publishers.

Had Judge Denny Chin approved it, the $125 million settlement would have given Google the green light to continue with its digitization initiative and partial ownership of thousands of written works.

Peter Hirtle, senior policy advisor for the Cornell Library, lamented the court’s decision as a likely end to what he considered to be “a dream … a digital library of Alexandria.”

“I can see no other way of getting access to these books sometime in the near future,” Hirtle said. “We are that much farther away from a universal library.”

In his ruling, Chin said “the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many,” but rejected the settlement on the grounds that it was neither “fair, adequate [nor] reasonable” in regard to copyright and antitrust laws, according to The New York Times.

The multi-million dollar deal was the result of lengthy negotiations between Google and representatives of the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, who in 2005 sued the Internet giant for its book-scanning project.

According to The Times, Google has scanned nearly 15 million publications into its online database. While Google displays 100 percent of the scanned material that is not copyrighted, much of its database still falls under copyright law and cannot be displayed in full.

An approved settlement, however, would have allowed Google to display full books online that are currently under copyright — a substantial change from the current “snippet” view, which offers only 20 percent of the texts for online viewing. The company could also sell subscriptions to its digital library, granting universal access to millions of titles, according to the amended settlement agreement.

In return, Google would have paid more than 60 percent of all revenue from the Google Books Search Project to a registry of rights-holders; the money would then be allocated to the rights-holders. Google was prepared to pay authors $60 per book, according to the settlement.

The Cornell Library announced its support of Google’s initiative in September 2009 when University Librarian Anne Kenney submitted a letter to the court that acknowledged the library’s reservations, but nonetheless recognized the “inestimable … potential benefit to research” in Google’s project.

Since 2007, the library has been in partnership with Google to digitize “up to 500,000 works” housed in the various libraries on campus, according to a press release issued by the University in August 2007.

Although Kenney disagreed with the court’s decision, she said that the ruling will not harm the library’s digitization initiatives.

“Judge Chin’s ruling certainly is a setback for Google, but Cornell’s participation in the book digitization project has not been tied to that decision,” Kenney stated in an email. “We continue to have materials digitized through our arrangements with Google and anticipate that that will continue.”

But, according to Hirtle, the ruling has derailed similar digitization plans of other universities and their libraries.

“Many universities, like the University of Michigan, signed amended agreements with Google that assumed the settlement would be approved,” Hirtle said.

A diverse conglomeration — including academics, authors, copyright experts, the Justice Department, foreign governments and Google’s rival companies like Amazon and Microsoft — opposed the settlement, according to The Times. While some were concerned about royalty pay for authors, others focused on broader legal and ideological issues they said the settlement posed.

“I support Judge Chin’s rejection of the settlement,” said Prof. Rayna Kalas, English. “I am strongly in favor of the digitization of books. But digitization is not the central issue in this case … The settlement proposed by Google raises serious concerns about what it would mean for a single private corporation to govern access to so many of our culture’s authored and copyrighted materials.”

Prof. J. Robert Lennon, English, expressed excitement about the prospect of digitizing, but also made clear his concerns for authors who rely on royalties for their work.

“That writers manage to get paid … is becoming increasingly hard to guarantee,” said Lennon, who has published seven books. “Unlike musicians, we can’t offset the cost of piracy and file sharing by going on tour … Publishing is all we’ve got.”

But published authors came out on both sides of the issue.

“I understand concerns on the part of publishing authors who earn royalties … so it does not surprise me that they would be against this,” Prof. Barbara Correll, English, said. “The federal court decision seems to reflect this and to support traditional ideas on intellectual property.”

Still, as a published author, Correll said that the settlement would have increased the income she receives from her work.

“Perhaps since I’ve earned all of $900 for what I’ve published, [I] am all for expanding public domain and offering every published work ever to anyone,” she said.

Hirtle echoed Correll’s sentiment, pointing out that the settlement would have given a new stream of revenue to authors who were “getting nothing” for their books.

While Cornell’s plans with Google were untouched by the federal court decision, Chin’s rejection of the settlement left in limbo the status of Google’s digital aspirations.

While Lennon describes his mood in the face of the recent court decision as “uneasy optimism, occasionally interrupted by vertiginous attacks of existential despair,” others still maintain an optimistic outlook.

“I think the future will reveal that it’s not possible to privatize writing,” Correll said.

Original Author: Eli Grossman