Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Google settlement will not improve access outside the US

Adam Hodgkin, Google Book Search and the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons, ExactEditions, February 1, 2009.  Excerpt:

Michael Heller, a property lawyer at Columbia University, has coined the term the 'tragedy of the anti-commons'....Heller's insight is that too much private ownership can be as much of a problem as too little: “When too many owners control a single resource, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears and everybody loses.” He gives plenty of examples in his book The Gridlock Economy -- the book's argument is forcibly stated in its subtitle: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives.

There is a good chance that the Google Books Settlement is going to show us all how this tragedy of the anti-commons works out in the world of books. The Google project, which is backed by the American publishers and American Authors's representatives should be (in my view will be) a wonderful resource for American universities, schools, public libraries and through them for American consumers. By 2011, if the Settlement is approved, at least 5 million out of print but not yet out of copyright [OOPnotYOOC] titles will be available to readers in the US market. This resource will have little opportunity to work so well for authors, readers and consumers in the rest of the world....

Google is already serving a very different and vastly narrower view of Google Book Search to the rest of the world (even to Canada and Mexico). Books which are public domain and wholly visible and readable in the US are not visible or readable elsewhere. And this copyright caution about territorial rights is unlikely to change, because the Settlement, when it is approved, is only going to be approved and agreed for the US market. Google has been persuaded (or has volunteered?) to accept the territorial restrictions and complications inherent in the market of copyright books. In my view, Google will not risk starting court actions in other jurisdictions, for the very simple reason that they might be lost, or worse still settled on a different basis from the US dispute. Google will be bound to leave the ex-US position of its wonderful aggregate of unloved (mostly 'orphan') copyrights in a national limbo. The orphans will remain unloved outside the 50 states.

The complexity of the rights situations of these millions of titles is effectively unmanageable and un-negotiable, which is pretty much what Michael Heller means by a tragedy of the anti-commons....

PS:  See our past posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) showing that Google Book Search already tends to block access to users outside the US.