What Would Diderot Do?

March 9th, 2009 by Ilya Marritz

Book historian Robert Darnton has read and summarized the lengthy draft settlement between Google and book publishers for the New York Review of Books.

Please allow me to now further simplify by summarizing Darnton’s analysis:

> The Enlightenment represented the dawn of a new age of learning, built on the free-ish exchange of ideas in letters and books.

> The enlightened founders of the United States limited copyright to 28 years, recognizing the necessity of both protecting authors’ rights and advancing public knowledge. Life expectancy was much shorter then, but a young author could have a reasonable expectation of his or her book losing copyright within their lifetime.

> The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extends copyright to the life of the author + seventy years. That means the books now entering the public domain date to roughly to the 1920s, and all the authors are dead.

> Google has been digitizing millions of books. Some of them are in the public domain, some are still copyrighted, and the largest portion are copyrighted but out of print, and therefore largely out of reach.

> A draft settlement between Google and publishers promises to bring the texts of these books to the people, at low cost (at your home computer) or no cost (at public and university libraries which purchase a license). This archive could quickly become the world’s largest library, bar none.

> This exciting archive could represent a Digital Republic of Learning that would have made Diderot (the author of the first encyclopedia) salivate.

> While there have been some similar efforts by not-for-profit groups like the Open Content Alliance, Google Books, will eat their lunch.

> The draft agreement between Google and publishers has problems: libraries would be limited to a single computer terminal with access to the archive, and users would have to pay to print copyrighted material.

> The biggest problem, however, is this:

“What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high.”

It’s interesting to consider this scenario. In the short life of Google, most criticism has come from a smallish cadre of geeks. Under different management, could the company ever do anything to make your mom mad?

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.


Get Adobe Flash player