The Google Book Settlement: Real Magic or a Trick

The Economists' Voice, Vol. 6, Issue 10


By Pamela Samuelson

Paul Courant has made a pragmatic argument in favor of the proposed settlement of the Authors Guild v. Google lawsuit that charged Google with copyright infringement for digitizing millions of books for its Google Book Search (GBS) initiative.

I agree with Courant that it is socially desirable for millions of out-of-print books in the collections of major research libraries, such as University of Michigan’s of which he is head librarian, to be digitized and made more widely accessible. And, indeed the approval of the settlement would bring about greater access to these books.

Courant, like other proponents of the proposed settlement announced last October 28, cast it as a win-win-win: for Google, the public, and rights holders who stand to benefit from Google’s commercialization of books in the GBS corpus if they sign up with the Google Partner Program or the new collecting society, the Book Rights Registry (BRR), that would be established upon approval of the settlement. However, a closer examination of the terms of the proposed settlement casts the deal in a far different and more troubling light.

There are three main problems with the settlement. First, there are insufficient checks and balances in the settlement agreement to prevent abuses that seem likely to manifest themselves over time. Second, this settlement is deeply unfair to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of members of the class on whose behalf the plaintiffs in the Authors Guild case purport to be acting. The third which I won’t address here are the antitrust objections of the Department of Justice (for which Courant proposes a partial fix).