Google Boggle

I'm going to say it: I've had just about enough of the Google Book Settlement. At yesterday's hearing, Judge Denny Chin of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York said there was "just too much to digest." He's right -- it's mind-boggling. (For those of you who would like to attempt it, though, here's a report from the New York Times, and another from Publishers Weekly.)

When I spoke to Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton about it in late October, he said he encourages large-scale book scanning but worried about Google's commercial power over the information. About the GBS, he said, "The settlement, in my view, has the makings of something that could be of great benefit to the country, but it requires safeguards." Darnton envisions a universal library, funded by the government, if necessary.

Sparring with the Authors Guild in the February 25th issue of the New York Review of Books, Darnton reiterates his points:

Yet the settlement could be modified to promote the public good. As things now stand, most twentieth-century literature--the great majority of books published since 1923--cannot be made freely accessible in digital form, owing to the excessive restrictions of our copyright laws. This problem could be resolved by legislation concerning orphan works or a revised version of the ASA, which would adapt one of its current provisions for the public good--that is, rightsholders of out-of-print works would be deemed to have accepted the settlement unless they opted out.

Better yet, the federal government could finance a national digital library by working with Google and the Library of Congress. The Authors Guild accuses me of utopianism by arguing for this solution, and I plead guilty. There was a utopian element in the Enlightenment and in the thought of the Founding Fathers. I think we should draw on it. We have the means; we merely lack the will. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France recently announced that the French state would devote O750 million to the digitization of France's "patrimony." Why doesn't the Obama administration make a similar commitment? For a smaller sum it could digitize the entire Library of Congress and remedy a great deal of unemployment at the same time.

Hear, hear!