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Librarian Laments Google Book Search 'Monopoly'

Google acquired a virtual monopoly on copyrighted but out-of-print books via a recent settlement, and the result could set a dangerous precedent, according to Harvard professor and librarian Robert Darnton's recent New York Review of Books article.

Darnton says the monopoly stems from Google's ongoing project to scan and index the contents of major research libraries, and the resulting lawsuit brought against Google by authors and publishers who objected on the grounds of copyright infringement. The lawsuit was settled out of court last October, although a judge has yet to okay the validity of the agreement. The extremely long settlement totals 134 pages and 15 appendices.

In Darnton's view, "the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit."

From the perspective of libraries and end users, this may not seem like a huge concern right now -- after all, notes Darnton, the project potentially gives even the smallest library access to holdings found in big-city libraries. However, he says there is a long-term worry that Google won't play nice later: The company "can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier...Google's record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges."

Google's potential monopoly has its strongest hold on books that are out of print but still under copyright. Those in the public domain aren't covered in the agreement, and books in print are readily available elsewhere.

Harvard opted to limit its cooperation with Google over the scanning project shortly after the settlement was published.

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