There’s been a simmering anti-Google sentiment at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, no doubt connected to European objections to the Google Book Search Settlement. And on Friday that simmer reached a boil, as the deal faced harsh—at times, puzzling—criticism at a registration-required panel on “European and American Positions Towards the Google Settlement.”
The panel included Santiago De La Mora, Google director of book partnerships in Europe and Christian Sprang of the German Publishers and Bookseller Association. But the main event was between an outspoken European critic of the deal, German academic Roland Reuss, author of the Heidelberg appeal, and Bertelsmann Inc.'s Richard Sarnoff, one of the chief architects of the Google settlement.
After Sarnoff’s brief discussion of the settlement, the soft-spoken Reuss suggested—rather stunningly—that the “access” so touted by supporters of the settlement was not a real issue, telling the audience that academics have gotten by just fine for the past 500 years under the old system of publishing. He suggested that Google’s efforts would “demolish” that business.
He called Sarnoff “naïve,” and blasted the settlement for blatantly disregarding the Berne Convention—and specifically a tenet of European copyright law, “moral rights,” a tenet that does not exist in American copyright law. Moral rights under European copyright law allows a copyright owner control over the fate of their works—a tenet that puts the “opt-out” nature of the settlement front-and-center, and which served to infuse this settlement discussion with overtones of a culture war.
For his part, Sarnoff conceded that negotiators of the deal did not anticipate the “doctrinaire” backlash in Europe over moral rights, telling the audience that the parties genuinely thought they were doing something that would benefit everyone. He said that European works may indeed have to be removed from the settlement.
Sarnoff then struck back against Reuss’s claim that access to books wasn’t a critical issue at hand. “Most students turn to electronic resources first,” he noted, adding that due to a “market failure” the majority of the 20th century’s books would otherwise not be on the Internet, leaving students with public domain works, and sources like Wikipedia—unless, he suggested, like Reuss, they have access to a university library. “Access,” he stated, “matters a lot.”
“Of course I am not against access,” Reuss replied. “I am against the fetishizing of access.” Reuss earned occasional applause for his broadsides. Over the course of the session, however, he seemed mostly to fear the Internet itself—if not the encroachment of American culture the Internet might enable. As for Reuss’s claim that the settlement would “demolish” the publishing business, Sarnoff stressed that the settlement only dealt with books that were out of print, and not commercially available, and thus “not making a dime” for anyone. He said the deal would give “new life” to books that were making no revenue today.
That position was echoed by Google’s De La Mora, who had to fight a perception consistently put forth by the moderator—that Google was now a publisher. De La Mora stressed that Google’s aim was search—good search attracts users, and users attract advertising, he noted. When he discussed Google’s desire to give works a new platform on the web, however, he only added fuel to the fire by using language that at times made Google sound very much like a publisher.
Christian Sprang was the most moderate voice on the panel—at times agreeing with Sarnoff’s vision—while disagreeing with the specifics of the settlement. He said there “must be a compromise,” and suggested government intervention. “We have money for everything else,” he noted, “but no money to address the gaps in our libraries.”
Free for all
Unfortunately, actual settlement details and the deal’s current status—a new deal is set to be unveiled by November 9—barely came up, either in the session or during the Q&A period, nor did the discussion that took place in Brussels in September, at an EU hearing. The question period was severely cut short by the first inquiry, a rambling, multi-part screed that seemed to question the effect of Google’s advertising on users’ brains. Another questioner then accused Google of “digital imperialism.” The session ended with something of a free-for-all, as the moderator attempted to once again brand Google a publisher. “We’re not a publisher,” De La Mora protested as a gaggle of reporters began to approach the stage.
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