Thursday, May 07, 2009

Giving Away the Cow: Google Book Search Settlement

Up until now, we’ve stayed out of the fray over the proposed Google Book Search Settlement. For me, this has in part been due the fact that I’ve had a gnawing sense of unease that can border on panic whenever I contemplate what they’re proposing. The sheer audacity of what Google wants to undertake with this knocked the wind out of a lot of people’s sails. Certainly, the whole time this has been going on I’ve been sort of shaking my head, not quite believing what I was seeing and hearing.

In a very simple nutshell, Google wants to scan millions -- millions mind you -- of books and store them digitally, making them available, basically at their whim. OK, that’s possibly a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea: what they’re proposing could change everything.

Why does it all come back to newspapers for me these days? But it does. And here we are again: With the futures of many papers in jeopardy, one of the things I’ve been hearing from that industry in the last month or so is that they made some bad decisions about a decade ago when newspapers decided to give away the cow and then ended up being surprised when their readers kept wanting free milk. I don’t want to be sitting here in another decade listening to publishers saying: Oh, drat. Maybe we shouldn’t have done that. But I stand here in my near panic watching while they gather the cows, preparing to set them free for 60 bucks a head. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

Now thunder clouds are gathering from all angles. The most recent of these comes by way of David Needle at Internet News who quotes Internet Archive Founder Brewster Kahle in a recent column:
Kahle said he’s especially driven to protect books because “books are how we think in long form. They’re generally written by one person ... and can put across a big idea.”

He lamented the rise of Amazon and Google as the primary distribution points of books and their content. Kahle said he thinks Google’s efforts to digitize vast amounts of public domain and other books to make them more widely available is laudable, but he criticized the proposed settlement (now under review) with book publishers because it gives the search giant the right to digitize and control the distribution of out of print books that aren’t necessarily out of copyright.

Another monopoly?

“It creates another monopoly,” said Kahle. “It doesn’t make sense for them to be locked up by Google, it’s very screwy.”

Going forward he warned the settlement might “determine the future of books and paid content.”
Meanwhile, Arts Technica is reporting that Google’s plan has libraries worried:
The deal Google cut with publishers to settle their copyright infringement suit would give a green light to the search giant's book-scanning services and turn it into a retailer of out-of-print books. But resistance to the deal has been growing, as a variety of parties are realizing that the settlement gives both Google and the Book Rights Registry created by the deal enormous power over the dissemination of the scanned material. The latest groups to weigh in represent research librarians, who are worried about the deal's privacy implications and the lack of guarantees of current and future access. The solution, in their view, is to structure the settlement in a way that guarantees the court the right to intervene in the future.
See, that’s the thing: it isn’t that Google is evil. And it might not be that Google’s plan is bad. But it will change things. And how? Well, we don’t exactly know. But when you look at, say, how the music industry has been altered by technology over the last decade and if you look at my favorite news-gathering example you can see that even something built slowly over many, many years -- even generations -- can be torn down very easily if you slide away the right -- or the wrong -- bricks. Like a lot of people, I’m not so sure that concentrating all the control in one place is such a great idea.

This controversy is far from over and -- certainly -- there’s a lot more to know than I’ve shared here where I’ve been talking a lot about cows and sails and nail-biting panic. If you want to build a more lucid picture, Library Journal has put together an impressive page of links on the topic. Some time spent here will fill in all the blanks.

I don’t know what the correct answer is to this one. Heck: some days I’m not even completely sure I’m understanding the question. But I do know this: there are some very important issues in play here. Some would even say precious or sacred. Caution at this point seems not only prudent, but also necessary. We have so very much at stake.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are frightening issues indeed. I think you're correct in thinking that it might be best to proceed with caution. My fear is that it may be too late. -- C. Innes, Oak Park, Il.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8:29:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Barbara Friend Ish said...

You have summed this up beautifully: thank you. When GoogleBooks seemed to be about rescuing out-of-copyright works I liked it better; current efforts have implications few if any have truly worked out.

There is no question that publishing must transform itself if it is to remain relevant--truly transform itself, not just talk about finally putting out electronic catalogs. But the industry allows _Google_ to transform _it_ at its peril.

It is up to all of us whose task it is to manage copyright, whether in our own behalf or on behalf of authors we represent, to figure out how to thrive in the new, emerging landscape of publishing. If publishers and writers insist on remaining in their comfort zones, the decisions will be made without them.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 9:19:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems like just a few weeks or a month ago everyone was in favor of this. What has now changed?

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 9:32:00 PM PDT  

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