Robert Darnton, who has been director of libraries at Harvard since July 2007, has written a provocative article in the February 12 issue of The New York Review of Books. Darnton has a compelling insight about the recent settlement of the Google Book Search lawsuit. The settlement itself is a lengthy document, and I confess I only recently made my way through the whole thing. Darnton points out, however, that implicit in the agreement is a "fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company." He believes that the "terms [of the settlement] are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart." The effect of this is to give Google a monopoly over the
access to information. Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons ... and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.
According to Darnton, a number of different institutions and individuals dropped the ball while Google was digitizing millions of books--Congress, the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, major research libraries acting together--and thus missed the chance to act in the public interest. Darnton laments that, "We could have created a National Digital Library--the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now."