Book Rights: Is Google Pilfering Property?
“Google’s only interested in the white margins” (Photo: © Johannes Becker / PIXELIO)
6 October 2009
Do we need a World Library? Can knowledge be owned? Is an Internet giant taking over the worldwide book market? When people talk about Google Books, emotions run high. The passionate debate has now also been held at a conference in Berlin – on a somewhat more rational level. By Katja Winckler
Yet there is a sense of unease. Along comes a huge company and digitalizes random authors’ books – en masse. So far, they number approximately ten million copies. Is the purpose of the World Library being generated merely to provide “knowledge für all,” as the search engine giant Google wants us to believe? Or are copyrights being trod upon; are authors and publishers perhaps being robbed of their livelihoods?
The complexity of the issue and how little foreseeable the consequences are for authors, publishers, libraries and readers now became clear at a expert conference held by the Goethe-Institut, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the information portal iRights.info in Berlin.
“Who owns knowledge?” was the key question asked by Andreas Poltermann of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Should a private company such as Google be given the responsibility for public goods? Anyone who hoped for a clear answer to these questions will, admittedly, be disappointed at the conference Dispossession or Infotopia? Google Books and the Future of Knowledge.
Settlement postponedFor the Goethe-Institut, for instance, there is no one position, explained Christoph Bartmann, head of the Culture and Information department. “We are not interested in finding fast answers to these questions. Rather, the purpose of this event is to enable and follow a public debate and convey the exchange overseas.”
In response to a class action lawsuit filed by American publishers and authors, Google proposed the Google Book Settlement. According to this, Google would be at liberty to scan books without individual permissions and make them available to Internet users; the holders of the rights would, however, be entitled to 63 percent of possible income.
A final hearing, originally scheduled for 7 October, has been postponed. Instead, on that day there will be a so-called status conference, at which the parties, including the US Department of Justice, will discuss the next course of action. According to reports, they will agree on extensive amendments to the previous settlement. Should, however, the large-scale project fail completely, for some it would mean a possibly irrecoverably lost opportunity, for others the prevention of a monopoly position of an “evil” media mogul.
Author sell-out?These opposing positions also were evident on the podium at the Heinrich Böll Foundation – there was a mixture of mistrust and optimism. Peter Glaser, for example, represents the sceptics. The Bachmann Award winner urgently warns against an author sell-out: Google is “not interested in the texts as cultural assets, but in the white margins around them.” It would open the door to a problem that could become terminal, because we cannot yet foresee the consequences.
On the other side, Joerg Pfuhl warned against thinking in terms of black and white: “I welcome the settlement as a step into the future,” said the head of the Random House publishing group, “we don’t want to be standing there empty handed since this would deprive us of a legal position against Google.” The ever-growing number of publications can never be held by a warehouse. That is why his publishers are going with the e-book.
Jan Meine, a publisher from Leipzig, also holds a more relaxed stance. He is especially glad that Google triggered a “huge debate” that was long overdue. He explained that some of his authors are already participating in the Google partner programme. Gabriele Beger from Hamburg municipal library also plans to cooperate with Google, since no other provider has made such advances in digitalization.
Irene Pakuscher, head of the department for Copyrights and Publishing Rights at the Federal Ministry of Justice, backs “digitalization of cultural works, but only without disregard for copyrights.” Her ministry is presently examining whether the legislative body needs to take action on the issue of copyright.
The attendees did basically agree on one thing: digitalization in inevitable. Otherwise, as librarian Beger stated, “we’ll end up in the Stone Age and give the USA the competitive edge.”