States are being negligent with their cultural heritage when they turn it over to a monopolist and thereby run tax-funded projects like the European digital library Europeana into the ground.
Not having had the time — till today — to go through the details of the controversial Google Books settlement, I wasn’t entirely sure where I stood on the issue. The above quote by the German Minister of Culture, however, was the first indication that the settlement couldn’t be as evil as some were making it out to be. Not to over-generalize, but when leftist cultural nationalists oppose something, it generally means I will end up supporting it.
Anyway, it prompted me to finally go through the agreement in detail. And my intuition was right, I think the agreement is perfectly ok, and indeed a great thing. It is important to make clear at this point that my concern was never monopoly; I happen to oppose anti-trust laws. My concern was always rights. So for me, the most important aspect of the agreement is the fact that is non-exclusive. That basically seals it for me. Once you see what that means, it is clear that much of the opposition is misleading, or worse. In particular, the next time you hear someone claiming that the agreement gives Google an exclusive right to sell millions of out-of print but still-in-copyright books at whatever price they wish, remember they are simply lying. The rightsholders of these works, under the terms of the settlement, retain all rights to sell (or give out for free) digitized copies of their books through any other agency, even a competing one, now or any time in the future. (They also have the right to opt-out of the settlement altogether.) So if you are the copyright holder of an out-of print book and you are outraged that Google is selling it at some high price, remember that you can, first off, ask them to stop (there is a deadline for this) or even better, you can legally, anytime you wish, put it up on your own webpage or anyone else’s, or enter into a competing agreement with Microsoft or Yahoo, and either sell your book at your chosen price, or give it to the public for free (and you don’t even have to opt out of the settlement, meaning that your book will continue to be searchable through Google). This is very different from what the situation would have been if the agreement were an exclusive one, and the distinction really goes to the heart of the matter.
As for the case of orphaned out-of-print books (where the rightholders cannot be found or don’t care), first off, Google is doing a service by making their books more easily available; secondly, any other individual or competing company — like Amazon — can also scan these books (that’s the beauty of non-exclusive), and thirdly most of these books will get into the public domain pretty soon.