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Financial Times: Google’s railroading cartel

The Financial Times‘ Lex column (registration at site required, but free) makes the rhetorical point: Imagine that in the 19th century the company furthest advanced laying US railroads was given the right to build all future rail lines. The public might have gained from the new services, but ultimately been left at the whim of […]

The Financial Times‘ Lex column (registration at site required, but free) makes the rhetorical point:

Imagine that in the 19th century the company furthest advanced laying US railroads was given the right to build all future rail lines. The public might have gained from the new services, but ultimately been left at the whim of a powerful monopoly. Now take the deal between Google and the publishing industry to create a digital market for out-of-print books – some 40 per cent of all those ever published. However laudable such a goal that may be, it raises anticompetitive issues too.

The article lays out clearly and simply why the Google Books deal with libraries is flawed. Rather than creating and exception to existing copyright and intellectual property restrictions, the outcome of the legal confrontation should be a general and open system for any company that wishes to scan books under terms acceptable to authors or other rights holders.

The deal is based on a scenario that is too good to be true. Google is only here to help, the company says, yet is it sweeping up rights that could be abused. Readers face a potential future where, because it is impractical to compete with Google, other e-book providers simply don’t try, giving Google free reign to raise prices on access to books, whether one at a time or through an all-you-can-read subscription service. It could choke off libraries’ access to these books, because Google circumvents their relationship with the reader or raises institutional prices too high.

For free culture activists, it should be clear that the settlement in effect grants Google a degree of control over access to library collections it has scanned that is functionally similar to holding a renewed and extended copyright on the works.

It is also questionable whether the potential for advertising in library-accessed books is a good idea, since it commercializes what had been a public good and, potentially, creates a commercial filter based on advertisers preferences for certain ideas and information. If faced with reading an uncontroversial history of, say, the Iraq War, which is free at the library through Google Books and one that, because it has no ad revenue support carries a fee, the least-privileged in society would probably opt for the free choice. That’s a kind of commercial Big Brotherism we need to engineer out of e-libraries.

The takeaway: Google is being granted a cartel position in the intellectual marketplace, which the FT believes is bad for competition. “Google’s ingenuity does not give it the right to surround itself with an impregnable digital moat,” the column concludes.

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