The debate about the Google settlement, like most of any consequence or intellectual interest (what the government should do about health care or energy, for example) actually engages a wider range of knowledge than most of us have. But we feel comfortable having an opinion about what we should do about health care or energy without necessarily knowing much about the logistics, requirements, actual state of affairs, or cost-value relationships of what we favor or oppose.
We each start with a general position. For example, mine on health care is that government intervention is required to make sure everybody has a minimum reasonable standard of care. On energy I believe government policy should encourage energy development and consumption that is efficient and unwasteful while increasingly substituting renewable energy for resource-consuming energy.
My personal political positions are directional, not very specific. Others, perhaps because they’re better informed, have more aggressive and articulated views. I know people who think health care isn’t worth fighting for unless it is single payer; that anything else could make matters worse. I am sure there people that hold similar positions on energy that I would deem “perhaps desirable, but not politically achieveable at this time”. They’re my allies unless their idea of “perfect” blocks my idea of “better”.
And then there are others, of course, who aren’t allies at all: people who believe that market forces can be trusted with social challenges or simply resist the idea of any expansion of government or increase in taxes.
But when it comes to the details of legislation, most of us just plain citizens are pretty helpless even to have an informed opinion, let alone to have any influence. The staffs of our legislators are hearing about the details from the experts representing doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies, left- and right-wing lobbyists. If Charlie Rangel says that a very modest tax increase on people making over $350,000 or $500,000 a year will bring the costs into line with the parameters President Obama says are economically necessary. Assuming there is no chorus of objections from sources I trust (Krugman), I’ll just accept that as fact. It advances my philosophical position and I tend to trust him. I mean, who really “does the math” for themselves on things like this? Without being a professional, how could you?
The Google settlement might not be as complicated as health care or energy, but the debate about it also revolves around a lot of unknowns. Although the argument between those who say “approve it” and those who say “reject it” or even, “reject it if you can’t change it” is superficially waged on the “merits” and on the words in the settlement, I believe most of us come to this extraordinarily complicated question with a position and then put each new piece of information (or argument) into a “context” that won’t require us to change that position. And since we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns, that’s not really very hard to do.
My dominant prejudice I bring to this conversation is a belief that copyright laws have been extended so that they are abusive to the public interest and result in a lot of intellectual property being walled off from use for no good commercial reason. With that as a background belief, I saw what Google did (scanning all the work) as cutting a Gordian knot. Others come to this discussion with a dominant concern of respect for copyright or a dominant concern of bullying monopolies. Their prejudice might lead them to be against the settlement while mine pushes me to favor it.
Today’s post is not to argue that the settlement should be approved, but to consider what the situation will be if the settlement is rejected. The proponents and opponents of the settlement certainly seem to differ on what the world will look like if the settlement is approved; might there be somewhat greater agreement between the sides about what the world will look like if the settlement is rejected?
To me, it looks a short story.
The consequences of the settlement being rejected seem catastrophic to settlement opponents if it is turned down because the litigants are deemed not to fairly represent the classes (that is: the judge buys into the the idea that foreign authors, contributors, and orphans and perhaps others are “left out”). If the class representation is overturned or curtailed, it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible for these lawsuits to go on (and there are two lawsuits, even though there is one settlement.) If the settlement is rejected for some other reason (perhaps: the judge agrees that it can’t be allowed because it grants Google what would be a monopoly), then presumably the litigation could go on.
If rejection of the settlement is because the AAP and/or AAR don’t represent the class, Google would be in a stronger position than they were before the suit. There would be no database of orphan works to sell litigation-risk free, but the scans for search and returning of snippets would just continue. Authors could individually sue for copyright infringement if they wanted to try. Nobody would be any more tempted to “compete” with Google by scanning in-copyright works than they are now. And Google would have the benefit of having smoked out a lot of potential litigants because the faux settlement got a lot of copyright holders to come forward.
A little-known fact is that most of the value of the database Google was going to sell was in the in-copyright works that would have been ceded to the database. (This came up obliquely because these are the copyright holders who are going to get bonus revenue from the money earned by the page views on orphans, a fact settlement opponents have raised.)
That being the case, somebody will want to distribute that database, even without the orphans. That somebody will have to negotiate with Google to get the digital files and then with each of the publishers for their rights, without a BRR to help them. A pain in the neck, but in a few years it would probably happen.
If the settlement is rejected for some other reason, all of the above (except the part about still selling that database, since the copyright owners would still be in litigation with Google over this scanning and their lawyers would advise them against it; they can’t license a use for the scans they want to say Google shouldn’t have!) remains true and the AAP and the AAR get to decide whether to continue to fund the suit for the next several years while they and Google keep talking, presumably, about something that would satisfy the court (a bit odd, since they already satisfied each other!) If that were to happen, would the opponents of the settlement somehow help them carry on? Or step in to litigate in their stead?
If this analysis is right (and I float it with all humility: IANAL), then the opponents of the settlement walk a fine line. They want it rejected, or remanded to the litigants with some instructions they can actually follow. But they don’t want the plaintiffs discredited as representatives of the class. It would be the height of irony if Google, which probably had foregone challenging the standing of the AAR and AAP at the beginning to avoid antagonizing two organizations they ultimately need to work with, gets a court victory they didn’t seek handed to them by people motivated to make their lives more difficult. This could end up being a textbook demonstration of “unintended consequences.”