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Will Google Book Search Settlement Increase Access for Underserved Communities?

Google and multiple parties involved in a class action suit related to Google Book Search have reached a settlement agreement that in a best-case scenario will result in millions of out-of-print books previously unavailable to the vast majority of people becoming accessible with a mouse click. Individuals who study copyright issues and social justice have raised concerns that access to the knowledge and information must be truly equitable.

“Access is the big concern,” said Steven D. Jamar, professor of law at Howard University School of Law and associate director of Howard’s Institute of Intellectual Property and Social Justice, which on Wednesday held a panel discussion on the settlement. “Just because you’ve digitized doesn’t make it available. That’s the vision, but what’s next?”

Google Book Search has been digitizing books and making the content available for several years without the consent of the authors and publishers. Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and several authors and publishers filed a class action suit. Under the settlement agreement, Google will have the legal right to digitize books with the authorization of the rights holders. Various revenue streams will be created to compensate authors and publishers while also creating broader access for out-of-print books.

“There will be a public access terminal in every library building where anybody who is a member of the library or a member of the community will be able to see every book that’s in the program,” said Jan F. Constantine, general counsel of the Authors Guild. She estimates that 95 percent of the books that will be digitized are commercially unavailable or out of print. “So for a small town public library, somebody will be able to access all the books in major university libraries and have material that they would not have had before.”

There will also be institutional subscriptions for colleges and universities at prices yet to be determined based on the number of full-time students and faculty. Students will be able to access all of the books and be able to copy them (but not download). This means the libraries of major private and public institutions will be available to students and faculty at small rural schools as well as underfunded urban schools. Google expects to digitize 10 to 20 million books.

Private individuals will also be able to get previews of books and then purchase the merchandise if desired.

Lateef Mtima, professor of law at Howard University School of Law and director of IIPSJ, has long noted that copyright protections have repeatedly been used to keep underserved members of the population from having access to a great deal of material.

“For us, the digital divide has always been a constitutional copyright issue,” Mtima said. “We are at a point that it is possible for many of those underserved and marginalized people in society to finally have the kind of access to all the creative expression and literary works – that was just not possible before.”

Among the panelists at Howard was Charlie Brown, adviser to the president of the National Federation for the Blind. The settlement agreement provides access for the visually impaired.

Mtima is concerned that some copyright constituents will take advantage of the opportunities that the settlement agreement presents and try to shape it in a way that will continue to deny access to the underserved. Authors and publishers do have a right to opt their books out and not allow them to be digitized. There are also issues about copyright holders such as photographers or illustrators trying to prevent their work from being digitized with a book’s text, potentially leaving a book incomplete.

“It’s perfectly fine for people to raise a variety of questions and points that indicate that this project is not perfect,” Mtima said. “Those of us who are genuinely interested in the intellectual property law and copyright protection as an engine for social justice and social advancement in society it’s our job to keep the conversation in the right context and keep our thumbs on the right priorities.”

He added that he’s very pleased to see that there will be copyright protections for Black authors whose works have often been celebrated but often uncompensated. But tangential issues cannot override the incredible benefit of having vast amounts of knowledge accessible at virtually everyone’s fingertips. It is also important that there be sufficient numbers of terminals in urban libraries and affordable prices for smaller institutions.

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