The Google Settlement

I hope that more than just a few people are paying attention to the Google settlement, a legal decision that portends serious consequences for those who relish an open environment for the cultural commons. Certainly, a number of noteworthy observers have published caveats about the implications of this possible enclosure of the public domain: Pamela Samuelson, Robert Darnton, James Grimmelmann, and now Miracle Jones (special thanks to David Weinberger for vigilant attention and links).
 
The Google settlement looms especially ominously since, as Steven Johnson observes, we stand at the very beginning of a radical transformation of the ways we read. Since we have evidence to sugget that a great many living authors will resist the rising digital tide (Canute’s courtiers, anyone?), the ultimately irresistible force that will crack open the digital production and distribution of texts will come from works in the public domain — from Shakespeare and the Bible to Twain, Dickens, Austen, and innumerable other comparable works. If someone prepares attractive, usable electronic versions of these acknowledged classics, they can cultivate the (very sound) presumption among readers that all books might be available in easily used, easily read, transferable formats. It looks from here as though the Google settlement attenuates the possibility that such a presumption might take root and blossom. I admire Google, and I trust all the Googlepolitans whom I know, but this settlement has an ugly subtext; I’m on the Internet Archive’s side in this fight.
 
As an author, as a reader, as a technologist, as an editor, in every facet of my capacities and expertise, I urge readers and authors — and above all, Google — to work to ensure maximal freedom relative to the distribution and appreciation of published works. Honest, it’s in our own interest.

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