AGs Don't Like Google Books Deal, What About Readers?

Five state attorneys general have joined the opposition to the Google Books settlement, but what the deal means to readers isn't clear. Access to more books sounds great, but will it be?

The five AGs, from Missouri, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Washington, have varied reasons for their opposition, ranging from anti-monopoly to how money owed missing authors should be handled. The attorneys general are relatively late arrivals to the case, which already involves the U.S. Justice Department and others. A hearing will be held Oct. 7.

I have been staying away from writing about the ongoing controversy about how Google plans to compensate authors of out-of-print but still-in-copyright books it plans to offer online.

As the author of two such books, I won't concern myself with the 5-cents-a-year they might generate in payments from the Books Rights Registry that is created by the proposed settlement.

What does it mean for readers?

While I am happy that more and more of the world's content will be available online and as on-demand paperbacks, I wonder about the value of letting Google control and monetize it. Google didn't write any of these books, it's just scanning them.

And while Google is paying for the scanning, it seems like more organizations than just Google should be involved in making the books available. Google has offered that concession, but I am still concerned. I would prefer to see an independent, not-for-profit or even a group of private businesses doing the scanning, not just a single company.

Further, the settlement has far reaching consequences and could be seen as giving Google too much protection for too long a time. If circumstances change, the settlement may not.

The jury is still out on how the "don't be evil" Google ethos will play out over time. The company is still grappling with having what amounts to a single revenue source, selling advertising, and hasn't managed to break from it.

While Google has released interesting technologies and is working on more, none have caught fire with customers. Granted, many are early in the evolution of their markets, such Google Docs and Chrome OS.

There are many potential big wins ahead of Google, but so far--and they've been at it for more than a decade--only search has become a hit. That isn't meant as a criticism so much as an observation, but, my, how time flies!

It is reasonable to worry about what happens if Google runs out of steam before its next cash cow appears. What will Google do with all the "free" products it offers and what will the pricing for out-of-print books become? How about the privacy of Google users, in this case as it relates to books?

What will Google do with all the things it knows about us if it needs to make some quick money? What is it already doing what we may not be aware of? Would we be happy with the results of a business practices audit at Google?

My guess is Google is not a major "offender" today, but there is reason for concern in the future should Google's star dim.

Back to books, this deal could allow Google to continue its massive book scan-a-thon for decades. While I like what Google wants to achieve--in content if not necessarily business terms--I remain concerned.

The issues are complex enough that it is hard to know where readers should side. Sometimes there really are issues that may be best left to the courts and Google Books may be one of them. We'll be watching Oct. 7 and see what happens.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be reached via his Web site.

This story, "AGs Don't Like Google Books Deal, What About Readers?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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