The Washington Post has run a pair of op-eds, one from each side of the Google Print dispute. Neither says anything particularly new. Moreover, they enforce the perception that there can be only two positions on the subject — an endemic problem in newspaper opinion pages with their addiction to binaries, where two cardboard boxers are allotted their space to throw a persuasive punch. So you’re either for Google or against it? That’s awfully close to you’re either for technology — for progress — or against it. Unfortunately, like technology’s impact, the Google book-scanning project is a little trickier to figure out, and a more nuanced conversation is probably in order.
The first piece, “Riches We Must Share…”, is submitted in support of Google by University of Michigan President Sue Coleman (a partner in the Google library project). She argues that opening up the elitist vaults of the world’s great (english) research libraries will constitute a democratic revolution. “We believe the result can be a widening of human conversation comparable to the emergence of mass literacy itself.” She goes on to deliver some boilerplate about the “Net Generation” — too impatient to look for books unless they’re online etc. etc. (great to see a major university president being led by the students instead of leading herself).
Coleman then devotes a couple of paragraphs to the copyright question, failing to tackle any of its controversial elements:
Universities are no strangers to the responsible management of complex copyright, permission and security issues; we deal with them every day in our classrooms, libraries, laboratories and performance halls. We will continue to work within the current criteria for fair use as we move ahead with digitization.
The problem is, Google is stretching the current criteria of fair use, possibly to the breaking point. Coleman does not acknowledge or address this. She does, however, remind the plaintiffs that copyright is not only about the owners:
The protections of copyright are designed to balance the rights of the creator with the rights of the public. At its core is the most important principle of all: to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, not to stifle such exchange.
All in all a rather bland statement in support of open access. It fails to weigh in on the fair use question — something about which the academy should have a few things to say — and does not indicate any larger concern about what Google might do with its books database down the road.
The opposing view, “…But Not at Writers’ Expense”, comes from Nick Taylor, writer, and president of the Authors’ Guild (which sued Google last month). Taylor asserts that mega-rich Google is tramping on the dignity of working writers. But a couple of paragraphs in, he gets a little mixed up about contemporary publishing:
Except for a few big-name authors, publishers roll the dice and hope that a book’s sales will return their investment. Because of this, readers have a wealth of wonderful books to choose from.
A dubious assessment, since publishing conglomerates are not exactly enthusiastic dice rollers. I would counter that risk-averse corporate publishing has steadily shrunk the number of available titles, counting on a handful of blockbusters to drive the market. Taylor goes on to defend not just the publishing status quo, but the legal one:
Now that the Authors Guild has objected, in the form of a lawsuit, to Google’s appropriation of our books, we’re getting heat for standing in the way of progress, again for thoughtlessly wanting to be paid. It’s been tradition in this country to believe in property rights. When did we decide that socialism was the way to run the Internet?
First of all, it’s funny to think of the huge corporations that dominate the web as socialist. Second, this talk about being paid for appropriating books for a search database is revealing of the two totally different worldviews that are at odds in this struggle. The authors say that any use of their book requires a payment. Google sees including the books in the database as a kind of payment in itself. No one with a web page expects Google to pay them for indexing their site. They are grateful that they do! Otherwise, they are totally invisible. This is the unspoken compact that underpins web search. Google assumed the same would apply with books. Taylor says not so fast.
Here’s Taylor on fair use:
Google contends that the portions of books it will make available to searchers amount to “fair use,” the provision under copyright that allows limited use of protected works without seeking permission. That makes a private company, which is profiting from the access it provides, the arbiter of a legal concept it has no right to interpret. And they’re scanning the entire books, with who knows what result in the future.
Actually, Google is not doing all the interpreting. There is a legal precedent for Google’s reading of fair use established in the 2003 9th Circuit Court decision Kelly v. Arriba Soft. In the case, Kelly, a photographer, sued Arriba Soft, an online image search system, for indexing several of his photographs in their database. Kelly believed that his intellectual property had been stolen, but the court ruled that Arriba’s indexing of thumbnail-sized copies of images (which always linked to their source sites) was fair use: “Arriba’s use of the images serves a different function than Kelly’s use – improving access to information on the internet versus artistic expression.” Still, Taylor’s “with who knows what result in the future” concern is valid.
So on the one hand we have many writers and most publishers trying to defend their architecture of revenue (or, as Taylor would have it, their dignity). But I can’t imagine how Google Print would really be damaging that architecture, at least not in the foreseeable future. Rather it leverages it by placing it within the frame of another architecture: web search. The irony for the authors is that the current architecture doesn’t seem to be serving them terribly well. With print-on-demand gaining in quality and legitimacy, online book search could totally re-define what is an acceptable risk to publishers, and maybe more non-blockbuster authors would get published.
On the other hand we have the universities and libraries participating in Google’s program, delivering the good news of accessibility. But they are not sufficiently questioning what Google might do with its database down the road, or the implications of a private technology company becoming the principal gatekeeper of the world’s corpus.
If only this debate could be framed in a subtler way, rather than the for-Google-or-against-it paradigm we have now. I’m cautiously optimistic about the effect of having books searchable on the web. And I tend to believe it will be beneficial to authors and publishers. But I have other, deep reservations about the direction in which Google is heading, and feel that a number of things could go wrong. We think the cencorship of the marketplace is bad now in the age of publishing conglomerates. What if one company has total control of everything? And is keeping track of every book, every page, that you read. And is reading you while you read, throwing ads into your peripheral vision. I’m curious to hear from readers what they feel could be the hazards of Google Print.