Stating the Old and Obvious: Google Makes Book Grab

May 19, 2009

In this morning’s Washington Post (May 19, 2009), I was captivated by an essay called “A Book Grab by Google.” You can find the online version of the story here, hiding behind an annoying pop up add with the close button tucked in the upper left hand corner. Like this is going to make me buy whatever was on the annoying red ad thing? Mr. Kahle is a computer legend of sorts, and at the Library of Congress he has a killer rep. He provided the LoC with a copy of the Internet to tuck into its treasure trove of books, manuscripts, and fungible artifacts that jam its warehouses.

The trigger for the write up is an impending court decision about Google and its now-contentious deal to scan books. In the essay, Mr. Kahle stated:

If approved, the settlement would produce not one but two court-sanctioned monopolies. Google will have permission to bring under its sole control information that has been accessible through public institutions for centuries. In essence, Google will be privatizing our libraries. It may seem puzzling that a civil lawsuit could yield monopolies. Traditionally, class-action lawsuits cluster a group of people who have suffered the same kind of harm as a result of alleged wrongful conduct. And under this settlement, authors who come forward to claim ownership in books scanned by Google would receive $60 per title.

He concluded:

This settlement should not be approved. The promise of a rich and democratic digital future will be hindered by monopolies. Laws and the free market can support many innovative, open approaches to lending and selling books. We need to focus on legislation to address works that are caught in copyright limbo. And we need to stop monopolies from forming so that we can create vibrant publishing environments.

Several thoughts flapped through the addled goose’s mind this morning; namely:

  1. There’s been a whole lot of scanning going on over the years. University Microfilms, now reincarnated as ProQuest, owned by Cambridge Scientific, has been processing dissertations, newspapers, and other publications. Similar digital collections have been built by companies with an earthworm-like profile. For examples, sector leaders include Ebsco, Thomson Reuters, Reed Elsevier, and dozens of others. None has fired anyone’s imagination yet one might view each of these collections as expensive and quasi-monopolistic. Google ignites considerable discussion; its fellow scanners elicit a bored “who” and “what”?
  2. The Google Book gig has been cranking along for years. The scanning project is not new, and I recall hearing that some, maybe all, of the participating libraries get a copy of the data for their archive. With amalgamated online public access catalogs, the libraries have a door through which those interested in the scanned material can walk. Unless I am missing something, I can visit most university libraries in Kentucky, use the facilities, and pay not a cent for the access. I like visiting libraries in person and online access is more of a pre-research step for me, not the main deal. My Kindle hurts my eyes, and I have to put rubber shelf liner on my chest when I prop my Dell Mini 9 under my chin to read much more than a screen of content in the evening. I don’t even print out my own books. I wait until the publisher sends me a hard copy, I buy one at the bookstore, or I order an out of print item from the world’s smartest man’s Amazon service.
  3. Microsoft and Yahoo jumped into the scanning game and then jumped out. Libraries are not rolling in dough, and I don’t see any of the commercial database outfits stepping forward with the moxie and the money to do a better, quicker, or more thorough job than the Google. Do library associations have the cash? Do government agencies have the cash? Does your university have the cash and management expertise to lead a consortium to scan books? Do publishers have the cash and the technical acumen to scan their books? No, no, no, no. A part of me is grateful that Googzilla is funding this initiative. Most libraries with which I am familiar face serious financial challenges. When libraries close, where to the books go? To yard sales and to second hand dealers. Not students or researchers I assert.
  4. I am not sure this book controversy is about books. After a decade of viewing Google as an online advertising agency and the focal point of  the search engine optimization scamorama, pundits, wizards, and mavens want to play catch up. Google—as I have documented in my three Google studies—has been plodding forward a couple of inches at a time for quite a while. In fact, Google Books is not a main event. It is a side show.

I find it amusing that books, not Google’s other and more significant initiatives, has drilled into the incisors of the informed. In my view, books are, like video, in the process of change. Perhaps because books are cultural totems, the scanning project captures headlines.

Google is a new type of enterprise, and it operates on a level and in a dimension that will disrupt more than the book sector. More about these disruptive forces appear in my Google trilogy: The Google Legacy (2005), Google Version 2.0 (2007), and Google: The Digital Gutenberg (2009). More info here.

Stephen Arnold, May 19, 2009


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