British journalist Bill Thompson nails the Google Books settlement exactly this morning:
[T]he fundamental problem is not that the settlement will give Google indemnity from prosecution should it be found to have scanned books that are in copyright without the copyright owner's position, nor even that it gives Google freedom to exploit scanned content commercially. It is, rather, that the settlement gives only Google these privileges, and places one company in a prime position to become the world's de facto librarian instead of encouraging open access, open standards and a plurality of services and service providers.
The world is being digitized at a furious rate. Indeed, we are at an "inflection point," Thompson says, after which the world will be fundamentally different. In the U.S., we have a long history of handing public resources over to private monopolists. Think railroads. Think mining. Think television. Think FCC spectrum auctions.
When they decided to give CBS and NBC duopoly rights over the airwaves, that was a decision that determined the path of media, of journalism, of entertainment, of education, of child development for decades and decades. And that was just air.
We are talking here of books, of centuries of ideas, expresssion, philosophy, fantasy, the heights of human knowledge and the most trivial of entertainments. And this massive hand-off to a company that would dominate not just one resource, such as broadcast spectrum, but the entire wired and wireless Internet. And it would be done not through a high-level policy consideration of the public value in having private companies develop a resource but through a privately negotiated settlement between the monopolist and a group (the US Authors Guild) representing a tiny proportion of authors, and a publishers association.
George Santayana wrote "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but it may also be true that those who do not care to digitise their own past will end up paying a high price to regain what they give up so thoughtlessly.
If we let Google have its settlement we will all be the poorer. Not for a while, perhaps, but one day we will need more from this new library of Alexandria than Google is willing to offer, and find that the price it demands is more than we can pay.