Unanswered questions in Google book deal


WIRED:The digitisation of the world’s printed books is too important for any one company to do alone, writes QUINN NORTON

WHEN GOOGLE decided in 2004 to scan all the world’s print books, it undertook something vast. But, to paraphrase Sophocles, there is nothing vast that is not also cursed.

Google was not the first of the digital book scanners, but it was the first to be ballsy enough to announce that it was going to scan both public domain and in-copyright books from partnered university collections.

Previous efforts like the Open Content Alliance and Project Gutenberg were non-profit and often volunteer affairs, sticking with works whose copyright had already expired.

They didn’t have the bags full of cash and a phalanx of lawyers that emboldened Google’s foray into massive commercially driven copying of currently-owned books.

Unsurprisingly, the American Authors’ Guild and Association of American Publishers sued Google in 2005, suits which were quickly combined into one large class action suit.

The global nature of copyright meant that it represented more than US authors – it represented all authors who had sold books in the US after 1922.

The case never got the chance to wind its way through the US courts, though, because last year the parties settled.

Google agreed to an upfront fine, but in exchange it got an exclusive right to act as a collecting society for scanned books. Instead of being sued into oblivion, Google got to not only scan and post the copyrighted books, but it could show large previews of them, sell them, and even run advertisements next to them.

Google could take a slice of the financial action of about 37 per cent, with the publishers (and even occasionally authors) getting the rest. The total payment from Google was about $125 million (€89 million); the settlement itself ran to 134 pages.

Shortly after the settlement was announced, the libraries, authors, and copyright reformist communities erupted into controversy.

For anyone who cares in the slightest about the fate of the 20th century’s often abandoned and out-of-print “orphan” books, Google invented a kind of miracle by machine-cameras that could scan thousands of pages in a day.

They have thus far lifted about seven million digitally immortalised titles into the protected Google server farms, to live on in bits as they disintegrate in cellulose.

From the perspective of users, that means the chance to search a previously unavailable immensity of human knowledge at google.com, and actually purchase and possess these nearly lost books. And, as always, look at targeted advertisements crafted just for us next to the books we’re viewing. We’re feeling lucky now.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. What is perhaps most remarkable about the lengthy settlement document is the provisions it does not contain.

Despite its breadth, no explicit pricing system is laid out for buying books from Google, and nothing addresses the privacy of readers or the potential for book censorship by Google.

There is a danger of aggressive monopolistic pricing that would once again put these books out of reach for many.

Google could find itself financially or politically pressured to block or altogether remove titles politically difficult, libelous, or even banned in different jurisdictions. It could be turning over reading preferences connected to its comprehensive user profiles to the US government without anyone being the wiser.

Google’s first responsibility is to enrich its shareholders rather than safeguard our common cultural legacy.

Where profit comes in conflict with the public trust it’s hard to say what will win.

In the US Google can face a lawsuit for sticking its neck out, or in any way not putting the shareholders’ needs before the public need.

What’s more, the deal is with Google, and only Google. There is no possibility of competition, something that will stunt funding for other scanning efforts.

It is these concerns, and more, that have lead some devotees of book digitisation to be sceptical or even to condemn the deal.

Brewster Kahle of the Open Content Alliance views it as a power grab that threatens culture.

That might be throwing out the baby with the bath water – no one is in a better position to actually get the scanning done than Google.

The deal is not completely done yet. After getting the dates for the court ruling pushed back by four months, some authors and legal academics hope more time to study the draft settlement will yield more understanding of what exactly the language will do in practice.

The court is not scheduled to make the whole thing real until October 7th. In the meantime, voices are weighing in, briefs are being filed and blogs are holding forth. Whether any of this will change the nature of the settlement is hard to say. Google can listen to the concerns of the world, but it doesn’t have to.

Being a US-centric commercial operation makes Google’s book-scanning project difficult to influence, but vulnerable to outside forces. An aggressive EU-based scanning effort could pressure Google to stay well behaved, keep prices down, expose censorship, and provide an alternative and backup.

The digitisation of our books is simply too important for any one company, even a huge, smart and ostensibly non-evil one, to do alone.


Danny O’Brien is on leave