Old Economics in the New Media: Is the Google Books Settlement Enough?
The main issue in Robert Darnton's article is the struggle between publishers and the public for money and control over information. Publishers want to make as much money as possible off of their business, while consumers generally want to spend as little as possible on the information they want. Writers seem to be caught somewhere in the middle of this battle, as the first priority for any dedicated writer is for people to read, understand, and appreciate his or her work. However, to keep writing, they obviously need money, and they certainly deserve to be paid for their work (as publishers do). Google recently sneaked in as the middle man in this situation. By digitizing books and making them free on the Internet, they sparked the debate over control of information in a time when information is no longer scarce. Whereas books take physical resources and time to print, digital copies of any book can be made relatively quickly and cheaply, and can be copied an infinite number of times and displayed online.
The effort to control this new infinitely copyable form of knowledge is seen in the new legislation. Google's database can only be accessible from one terminal and cannot be printed without a fee. To me, this seems like putting an electronic bookstore (one that can only be “visited” by one person at a time) inside a library- a place where we expect to borrow books for free. This inherently betrays the idea of information for the public good- Google's books are not free to the public; they have to be bought or read entirely from one computer in a public building. This is not what a library is for, but as long as the books are copyrighted, we don't have an alternative. If the Google database was freely accessible from home computers, there would be no need to buy the information (you'd just be buying the right to print). So to ensure that people pay for the information, Google has the “consumer license”. The library terminals and consumer licenses will allow much greater access to these books, and the digital copies will be much cheaper than a printed and bound book. But even when we gain this vast scope of access to books, we lose the basics of the library. With this lawsuit, Google's books are not free of cost, simply because a digital copy can never be borrowed without the option to copy it. It's a great step forward to have this easy access to what Danton calls the largest library in the world, and I certainly don't want to belittle that. But when it comes to truly free information, we're back to square one. Old library books can be borrowed, but Google's trove of ebooks can only be viewed with a purchased license or individually bought.
So then, how can we preserve the enlightenment ideals of free access to information while still ensuring that writers and publishers are paid their fair share? The only answer I can see is sweeping copyright reform. Writers and publishers deserve to be paid for their work without a doubt, but when a writer dies, he has gotten all the payment he ever will out of his work. Buying a book from a dead person is just illogical- which is why we buy old books from publishers (not writers). But in my opinion, 70+ years is just too long for information to remain in the possession of publishers. Copyright once protected the public interest and the livelihood of writers as it should, before it was usurped by publishers to simply elongate the amount of time they have to cash in on a given book. 28 years is enough for a good writer to get much more than a return on his investment, though elongating the period in light of longer life expectancy would make sense too.
Thankfully, there are people throughout the world pushing to reform copyright law for the good of the public without sacrificing the well-being of artists or publishers. One such group is the Piratpartiet, or “Pirate Party”. Originating in Sweden due to disputes about internet piracy, a group of young people shifted their efforts from filesharing to reforming copyright law by forming a political party. Though it may seem at first that they just want more lax laws to allow more filesharing, the Pirate Party is a registered political party with a thoroughly researched, logical, and lawful agenda advocating copyright reform, the right to individual privacy (online and off), and transparency in the government. There are already active Pirate Parties in several other countries, with officially registered parties in Spain, Austria, Germany and Poland. The U.S. Pirate Party (active but not registered) focuses on the very same ideas of 1700s-era copyright law as Darnton. By simply reducing the time that copyrights last for, vast amounts of information would be free to citizens without taking money from the writers and artists who originally recorded the info. So, while I share some of Darnton's enthusiasm for Google's new database, I don't believe that it's quite enough to make our economy compatible with the digital age or to give both consumers and artists what they deserve- reasonable access to information, and copyrights that serve everyone, not just publishers.