Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Google Books Settlement Discussion @ BPL

After work tonight I went down to the BPL for their panel discussion on the Google Books Search Settlement, featuring project engineer Daniel Clancy, MIT Libraries Director Ann Wolpert and professors John Palfrey of Harvard Law School and Hal Abelson of MIT. The discussion was moderated by Maura Marx of the Open Knowledge Commons. The Rabb lecture hall was packed to the gills with librarians, authors, publishers and other interested folks, and the very energetic discussion ended up running much longer than the planners had intended.

While there were entire elements of the Google Book Search program and the settlement which didn't get touched on at all, the exchange ended up being fairly wide-ranging (probably as wide-ranging as it could possibly be in a couple hours). Clancy provided a very succinct overview of the program and the settlement (his bottom line: "ultimately, people want access"). The three other panelists then responded briefly to various aspects of the program, and the key word quickly became "queasy". Each of them confessed what I think many of us feel about Google Books: it's a great thing in principle, but the devil's in the details.

Questions of access models, privacy, copyright and future actions by Google and/or its partners in the settlement all came up, as well as the fundamental question of whether we as a cultural community/society want to allow a single company to effectively commercialize the corpus of digitized out-of-print books. Another major point of contention was the perceived lack of input by librarians and "public-interest" folks in the settlement; Clancy argued that in fact much of the settlement debates centered around how best to make the knowledge base available to the greatest number of people.

John Palfrey made several of the best points of the evening. He praised Google for having the "chutzpah" to make the effort in pursuit of this settlement (by challenging the authors and publishers), and pointed out that "we" (the library/cultural institution community) should have done it ourselves five years ago and left the commercial interests out of it (but we missed the boat). Now, he argued, we must "get in front of the mob and call it a parade," and he urged librarians to make noise and get active in shaping the new digital world, not being shaped by it. I think if those in the audience took one thing away from this evening's discussion it should be that: the world is changing, and if we're not riding the wave, we're getting swept under it.

I confess I haven't made up my own mind about the Google settlement (as proposed). Yes, I wish that the whole digital debate had been different, but that ship sailed a long time ago. And I still don't think we know enough about the pricing structure that Google will offer for institutional subscriptions to the corpus of materials covered by the settlement to say whether or not that's a workable option. I know that librarians need to be even more involved than they have been thus far, and I certainly hope that they will be.

Overall, tonight's debate raised quite a few good questions and provided some really useful details to those in attendance. And we'll have to wait and see what ends up happening with the settlement in court before we really know whether we will need to work to shape its provisions to our advantage, or whether we're back to square one.

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