The Laboratorium
August 2010

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GBS: Brantley on the Settlement and E-Book Rights

Peter Brantley, settlement critic and very occasional blogger, has an interesting post connecting the settlement’s division of revenue between authors and publishers to the long-running war over who owns e-book rights. Here’s a taste:

It is not too much to suggest that the conflict over ebook rights and royalties is one of the most outstanding irritants in the transition to digital publishing. It is an irritant that has drawn the Authors Guild and authors, and the AAP and publishers, into conflict time and time again. These actions have repeatedly involved the same small circle of actors – Paul Aiken, the Executive Director of the Authors Guild; Michael Boni, class action attorney for the Authors Guild; and Richard Sarnoff, the Co-Chairman of Bertelsmann, Inc. (responsible for the acquisition of Random House), the Chairman of the AAP, and widely attributed as an architect and lead negotiator for the GBS settlement.

In some lights, the proposed settlement in the Google Book Search case is really a proposed settlement in the conflict between the Authors Guild and the AAP over the exploitation of digital rights. Google, a bystander to that particular conflict, managed to drop a convenient litigation container for a class action settlement that could be alleged to contain all authors and publishers in a common agreement. The eventual proposal attempts to bring wholly new benefits to the other parties in the suits; benefits that Google might not have even imagined when it first began the Google Print program.

Back in Action

Tomorrow is the first day of classes. This should be fun.

Wrong Again, Zuck

Mark Zuckerburg (quoted in The Facebook Effect p. 287):

Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy? It’s an interesting alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving. The thing that binds those communities together and makes the potlatch work is the fact that the community is small enough that people can see each other’s contributions. But once one of these societies gets past a certain point in size the system breaks down. People can no longer see everything that’s going on, and you get freeloaders. When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, more trustworthy. It’s changing the ways that governments work. A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world.

Lewis Hyde (The Gift p. 36):

Potlatches were held to mark important events, such as a marriage or, most often, the assumption of rank by a member of a tribe. The oldest and most universal occasion for a potlatch was the death of a chief and the subsequent elevation of his successor to the vacant rank and title. … Status and generosity were always associated; no man could become a man of position without giving away property. … The tribe would labor a year or more to prepare the ceremony, if only to collect the treasure to be given away … .

In Mark Zuckerberg’s imagined potlatch, Facebook users are giving each other gifts (or should I say Farmville Gifts?), from which Facebook, almost incidentally, reaps a share of the value. But in a real potlatch, it would be Mark Zuckerberg giving away almost everything he owns.

GBS: An Open Letter on the Open Internet

Dear Google Books Team (including Dan Clancy):

When you say that Google is committed to orphan works legislation, is that in the same way it’s committed to network neutrality? When you say that reader privacy provisions don’t need to be in the Google Books settlement because Google is committed to protecting reader privacy, is that in the same way it’s committed to network neutrality? I hope you understand why your CEO has created a credibility problem for you, and will explain the matter to him at your earliest convenience.

Best wishes, James

About That Open Internet Thing

The Verizon-Google Net neutrality deal is now public. In brief: neutrality for Plain Old Internet, transparency but not neutrality for wireless, and nothing for “Additional Online Services” unless they “threaten the availability” of POI. They’re pushing their plan as a legislative framework.

I have no comment on the substance of the proposal. I have been reading and thinking about openness and neutrality for some time, and don’t yet feel that I know enough to offer an informed opinion about whether network neutrality is a good technical or policy idea, which forms of monopoly and closure to be most concerned about in the wireless world, or such matters. These are hard questions, and I am very suspicious of anyone who professes certainty.

I would like to say, though, that this secretly negotiated private “deal” is a terrible, terrible blunder on Google’s part, considered purely from the perspective of its own self-interest. Google has enjoyed a generally good relationship with many activists and civil society groups who want to protect individual freedoms online. Even if what Google is now proposing is good policy, the backroom nature of the process sends an unmistakable message to Google’s erstwhile allies: we’re with you only as long as it’s convenient for us.

Once that message sinks in, I expect many of them to take a long, hard look not just at where Google stands, but at where it could stand, on issues that they care about. Some of them are likely to shift into the “skeptics” column, to start sounding more like Siva Vaidhyanathan and Consumer Watchdog. And when the real day of reckoning comes for Google—the federal antitrust lawsuit—Eric Schmidt may be unpleasantly surprised at how few allies Google’s years of running a public-minded policy shop have won him. After all, if Google is willing to change its mind and shift course like this on an issue it has made such a big deal of, then “trust us” rings a bit more hollow wherever else it is invoked.

I know a lot of Googlers. They take “Don’t Be Evil” seriously. It’s part of the corporate culture in a surprisingly profound way. But so is intellectual arrogance. Individual Googlers tend to be nice, but Larry and Sergey set a certain tone. (They were smart and lucky, and have forgotten the luck.)

Google’s theory of how to do right—its theory of how to do anything—is that a bunch of very smart Googlers get together and figure out the problem. They’re open-minded, interested in hearing lots of options and testing them against hard data, and utterly sincere in their desire to find an optimal solution. But once they’ve found one, the Googlier-than-thou attitude kicks in. Why aren’t people adopting our clearly superior new way of doing things? (See, e.g., Google Wave.) Why are people complaining when we’ve worked so hard to anticipate all problems? (See, e.g., Google Buzz.) Ironically, it’s Google’s very devotion to not being evil that leads to this blind spot—other companies with less of a sense of integrity would simply act out of self-interest and accept that brickbats will follow. Google is honestly stung by criticism, because it is so unexpected.

Here is some criticism, then. Eric Schmidt, it profits a CEO not to give his company’s soul for the whole world … but for Wales? And Alan Davidson, you came from the civil society world, and you of all people should know how this announcement will be received there. It was your job to keep Google from making this kind of blunder, and in that you have failed. You and your colleagues who went to Google in hopes of doing good need to be asking yourselves whether you really are.

GBS: 129,864,880 Books in the World (At Last Count)

In a recent blog post, Leonid Taycher from Google’s Books team walks through some of the bibliographic challenges associated with counting and cataloguing books. After excluding the T-shirts with ISBNs, recognizing that “Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 1234” and “Proceedings of the 4th international symposium on Logical Foundations of Computer Science” are the same book, and many other analyses, they create a fresh snapshot of their best guess at the extant books of the world twice a week. The most recent count: 129,864,880. That’s a lot, and a lot more than the count of books Google has scanned, but it’s not an unmanageably large number.

UPDATE: Citing familiar concerns from linguists and librarians, and new ones mentioned in the blog post, Ars Technica says that Google’s count is “probably bunk.”

GBS: Travis on Estimating the Economic Impact of Mass Digitization

Hannibal Travis has posted Estimating the Economic Impact of Mass Digitization Projects on Copyright Holders: Evidence from the Google Book Search Litigation to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Google Book Search (GBS) has captured the attention of many commentators and government officials, but even as they vigorously debate its legality, few of them have marshaled new facts to estimate its likely effects on publishing and other information markets. This Article challenges the conventional wisdom propounded by the U.S. and German governments, as well as Microsoft and other competitors of Google, concerning the likely economic impact of mass book-digitization projects. Originally advanced by publishing industry lobbying groups, the prevailing account of mass book-digitization projects is that they will devastate authors and publishers, just as Napster and its heirs have supposedly devastated musicians and music labels. Using the impact of GBS on the revenues and operating incomes of U.S. publishers believing themselves to be the most-affected by it, this Article finds no evidence of a negative impact upon them. To the contrary, it provides some evidence of a positive impact, and proposes further empirical research to identify the mechanisms of digitization’s economic impact.

The debate surrounding the GBS settlement is important to students, writers, researchers, and the general public, as it may decide whether a federal appellate court or even the U.S. Supreme Court allows the best research tool ever designed to survive. If the theory of Microsoft and some publishing trade associations is accepted, the courts may enjoin and destroy GBS, just as Napster was shut down a decade ago.

The Article aims at a preliminary estimate of the economic impact of mass digitization projects, using GBS as a case in point. It finds little support for the much-discussed hypothesis of the Association of American Publishers and Google’s competitors that the mass digitization of major U.S. libraries will reduce the revenues and profits of the most-affected publishers. In fact, the revenues and profits of the publishers who believe themselves to be most aggrieved by GBS, as measured by their willingness to file suit against Google for copyright infringement, increased at a faster rate after the project began, as compared to before its commencement. The rate of growth by publishers most affected by GBS is greater than the growth of the overall U.S. economy or of retail sales. Thus, the very publishers that have sued Google have seen their revenues grow faster than retail sales or the U.S. economy as a whole (measured by gross domestic product). This finding parallels some of the research that has been done since the Napster case on the economic impact of peer-to-peer file sharing on sales of recorded music. Future studies may provide a more granular estimate of the economic impact of frequent downloads or displays of pages of particular books on the sales of such books.

The paper continues Travis’s thinking about digitization and Google. This is a small-N study, using a very imperfect proxy for the impact of the Google project on copyright owners, limits that Travis is quite forthright about. But it is a very intriguing way of framing some important questions about digitization.