On Tuesday Judge Denny Chen rejected a proposed settlement in the Google Book Search case. My write-up for Ars Technica is here.
The question everyone is asking is what comes next. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the parties will go back to the bargaining table and hammer out a third iteration of the settlement. It’s also possible that the parties will try to appeal the rejection of the current settlement. Still, in case anyone at Google is reading this, I’d like to make a pitch for the third option: litigate!
Google has long been at the forefront of efforts to shape copyright law in ways that encourage innovation. When the authors and publishers first sued Google back in 2005, I was quick to defend the scanning of books under copyright’s fair use doctrine. And I still think that position is correct.
Unfortunately, in 2008 Google saw an opportunity to make a separate truce with the publishing industry that placed Google at the center of the book business and left everyone else out in the cold. Because of the peculiarities of class action law, the settlement would have given Google the legal right to use hundreds of thousands of “orphan” works without actually getting permission from their copyright holders. Competitors who wanted the same deal would have had no realistic way of doing so. Googlers are a smart bunch, and so they took what was obviously a good deal for them even though it was bad for fair use and online innovation.
Now the deal is no longer on the table, and it’s not clear if it can be salvaged. Judge Chin suggested that he might approve a new, “opt-in” settlement. But switching to an opt-in rule would undermine the very thing that made the deal so appealing to Google in the first place: the freedom to incorporate works whose copyright status was unclear. Take that away, and it’s not clear that Google Book Search can exist at all.
Moreover, I think the failure of the settlement may strengthen Google’s fair use argument. Fair use exists as a kind of safety valve for the copyright system, to ensure that it does not damage free speech, innovation, and other values. Although formally speaking judges are supposed to run through the famous four factor test to determine what counts as a fair use, in practice an important factor is whether the judge perceives the defendant as having acted in good faith. Google has now spent three years looking for a way to build its Book Search project using something other than fair use, and come up empty. This underscores the stakes of the fair use fight: if Judge Chen ruled against Google’s fair use argument, it would mean that it was effectively impossible to build a book search engine as comprehensive as the one Google has built. That outcome doesn’t seem consistent with the constitution’s command that copyright promote the progress of science and the useful arts.
In any event, Google may not have much choice. If it signs an “opt-in” settlement with the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers, it’s likely to face a fresh round of lawsuits from other copyright holders who aren’t members of those organizations — and they might not be as willing to settle for a token sum. So if Google thinks its fair use argument is a winner, it might as well test it now before it’s paid out any settlement money. And if it’s not, then this business might be too expensive for Google to be in at all.