The Google Book Settlement: Google vs. everyone else

While the last-minute legal objections to Google's Book Settlement have mostly centered on copyright and other financial concerns, a group of authors, publishers and writers groups have filed an objection that centers on something that may concern a large segment of the population: privacy rights.

According to a court document filed on September 8 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and a number of literary individuals including Michael Chabon, Jessamyn West, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Schneier and Jonathan Lethem, the settlement "fails to safeguard reader privacy, and thus, is unfair, unreasonable, and inadequate to protect the interests of the class."

It goes on to state that "the Settlement includes no limitations on collection and use of reader information and no privacy standards for retention, modification, deletion or disclosure of that information to third parties or the government. Without those limitations, an unprecedented quantity of information about readers' activities will be, and indeed already is being collected. Google Book Search can link a reader to every book searched for, browsed, purchased and read. "

Google has already posted its privacy policy in an effort to fend off this latest attack, but it is indicative of the small storm that has blown around the settlement between Google and the Author's Guild ever since it was put together in October 2008. And the outrage hasn't just come from authors and publishers -- large companies such as Microsoft, and Yahoo are claiming that the agreement is anticompetitive. To that end, they and a group of other organizations have created the Open Book Alliance.

At this point, I need to make an admission: I am a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization which has joined the Open Book Alliance. However, my objectivity is probably less compromised by my membership in that organization than by my experience trying to register my one out-of-print book and two or three anthologized stories using the online Book Rights Registry.

Here's the problem: Google said it would set up a system by which authors could claim rights to their works via an independent Book Rights Registry and could, if they chose to, opt out of the agreement. If they opt out, they retain their right to sue Google if they so which. If they opt in, they can instruct Google to remove their works from its database if they want, or get a minimal fee for the right to show their work in Google's database.

After reading a great deal of arguments on both sides, I decided to opt in. But when I went into the Registry, I realized that I hadn't seen an interface this awkward and badly put together since the late 1990s, when I worked for a startup that was trying to coordinate a bunch of commercial databases using software created overseas by a non-English-speaking company. If somebody told me that it was associated with Google, I never would have believed it. I can only imagine what the experience is like for writers who need to register more than a couple of books.

But in the end, how difficult it is to register your works with Google is minor compared to all the other issues being raised. Whether it's worry over copyright protections, frustration with trying to navigate the system, or simple worry over privacy issues, it's certain that Google is being slammed by a host of organizations and individuals objecting to its plan to digitize the world's literature. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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