Over the past few weeks technophiles have been giving a great deal of attention to Google’s plan to digitize gazillions of books. However things turn out, the impacts of these decisions are going to reverberate across the planet, and warrant careful scrutiny. Whether in Zimbabwe or Bali, California or the Yukon, the whole world could benefit from Google’s efforts. By providing access to millions of digitized books to anyone with an Internet connection, Google seems poised to usher in a dead tree-free future while simultaneously undercutting several powerful industries (e.g., authors, publishers, libraries). With an army of scanners and some legal posturing, they have the power to remove artificial barriers that currently limit access to information. Further, they could easily provoke a second, decentralized renaissance. But, as is so often the case, things aren’t that simple.
Google announced in 2004 its plan to digitize millions of books and make them available online. Books in the public domain would be made freely available. Newer books, published since 1923 and for which copyright still exists, would still be online, but viewable only in what Google called “snippets.” Two groups, The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, sued, alleging copyright violations. In October 2008, the groups and Google announced a settlement to the lawsuits, dubbed the “Google Book Settlement” (GBS). Google would pay $125 million and create the Books Rights Registry, a new organization that would direct funds from the settlement, and future revenue from book sales, to the copyright holders. Google would be empowered to not only display works, but also to become a massive, online electronic bookstore. [...] The settlement grants Google, automatically, permission to scan, display and sell books that are still in copyright but are deemed “out of print,” and for which the copyright holder cannot be easily found. These are referred to as “orphan works.” The status of orphan works has been the subject of much debate, and legislation has been proposed to make orphan works more available to the public. The GBS gives Google, and only Google, the legal right to digitize and sell these works.
Google scans large library holdings and returns to each library digital versions viewable only on a limited number of computer terminals that Google provides. (Truth Dig)
To be clear, Google has no intention of providing universal access. The plan is to limit the general public’s access, and make everyone physically travel to Official Google Terminals in order to access more. Google will obviously offer subscriptions to scholars, but universities and libraries would maintain a stranglehold on the content:
Google has publicly said that 7 million books had been scanned as of some time in 2008; some others estimate up to 15 million now. This is a large piece of the total universe of book — US Census reports 2.334 M books published in the U.S. between 1880-1998, WordCat lists 23 million books.
Google Books is being created with private funds and will largely be privately held, with restrictions imposed by the settlement. [...] The largest value of this corpus might lie in the results of machine processing, even if no human eyeballs ever viewed it. These “non-display” or “non-consumptive” uses include arbitrary uses allowed within Google. For others, a “research corpus” will be created and housed at two US-based participating libraries. (Language Log)
Google’s machinations aren’t limited to the English-language or old, “orphaned” content:
Google has negotiated a settlement agreement designed to give it a compulsory license to all books in copyright throughout the world forever.
You might think that authors and publishers of books from Germany, Japan, South Africa, and other countries could not possibly be affected by a settlement negotiated by these three entities under U.S. law. However, owing to international treaties, virtually every author and publisher of in-copyright books in the world is in the settlement class and eligible to receive revenues from the Google Book Search commercialization if they sign up with Google or the Registry. (Huffington Post)
Google hasn’t had a smooth ride in their quest to preside over so much content. “Authors and publishers have banded against the settlement. State attorneys generals have voiced opposition to the settlement. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon have joined forces to oppose the settlement..” [Amazon's Kindle e-reader has its own bookstore, so their interests are clear. Microsoft was in the process of scanning bunches of books on their own, but turned tail and ran when Google got sued. (PC World)] Meanwhile, Germany is officially opposing Google’s efforts and intentionally trying to subvert their efforts. Fearing that the “vast number of European works in US libraries that have been digitised by Google would be available only to consumers and researchers in the US, but not in Europe,” the European Commission has called on Europe to begin digitizing books currently protected under European copyright.
Critics have offered various, occasionally self-interested rationales for opposition; but, rather than diminishing the opposition, this has actually emboldened it. There are several key points of extreme vulnerability in Google’s plan: anti-trust, meta-data, advertising, pricing, and privacy.
My concerns about the competition-policy consequences of the settlement center on the market for institutional subscriptions. The settlement gives Google the right to have and make available the contents of a universal library of books. Anyone else could build a digital library with public domain books and whatever other books it could license from publishers or BRR. But no one else can offer a comparably comprehensive institutional subscription service because only Google has a license to all out-of-print books. Google’s optimistic estimate is that only 10 percent of the books in the corpus will really be “orphans,” but 10 percent is still roughly two million books. (Huffington Post)
To date, Google has been slow addressing problems with meta-data. Google books has trouble weighting reviews and Google Scholar is riddled with mis-dated content, “wildly inflated publication and citation counts”, and search results are poorly ranked.
In order to help fund this massive effort, Google is considering bombarding information-seekers with advertisements:
Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Books, apparently opened the door to the possibility of Google including ads on the institutional subscriptions they propose to sell to libraries. He was responding to keynote panelist Pam Samuelson, who passionately took issue with yet another revenue stream exclusively protected for Google in the settlement. Prof. Samuelson* had recently heard that the institutional subscriptions sold to research libraries would come along with advertising.
Clancy did not rule out this approach, despite being given the opportunity to do so. “If we do..”, he stated, “…we would talk to…” subscription customers about an arrangement where customers would get a discounted subscription that comes with ads or pay more for no ads. When pressed [...] Clancy indicated that while Google would talk to the research library customers about these arrangements, they were not expecting to talk to the academic, research and student communities who would use the service – and be served the ads, based of course on what they were reading. (Resource Shelf, Library Journal)
Exactly how much subscriptions would cost has yet to be publicly discussed, but cash-strapped libraries are already feeling anxious:
Libraries everywhere are terrified that Google will engage in price-gouging when setting prices for institutional subscriptions to GBS contents…Prices for these subscriptions are to be set based on the number of books in the corpus, the services available, and prices of comparable products and services (of which there are none). Given that major research libraries today often pay in excess of $4 million a year for access to several thousand journals, they have good reason to be concerned that Google will eventually seek annual fees in excess of this for subscriptions to millions of GBS books. (Resource Shelf, Library Journal)
Befitting it’s endorsement of Chinese brutality, privacy doesn’t seem to be a priority for Google. “The proposed settlement agreement contains numerous provisions that anticipate monitoring of uses of GBS content; so far, though, Google has been unwilling to make meaningful commitments to protect user privacy.”
Sergey Brin, the co-founder and technology president of Google, recently wrote an op-ed for the NY Times in which he gave an impassioned defence of Google’s plans. He began his essay by describing a recent “discovery” he’d made with Google Books – an Insurance Yearbook from 1880-81 from which he gleamed the following:
The fundamental reasons why the electric car has not attained the popularity it deserves are (1) The failure of the manufacturers to properly educate the general public regarding the wonderful utility of the electric; (2) The failure of [power companies] to make it easy to own and operate the electric by an adequate distribution of charging and boosting stations. The early electrics of limited speed, range and utility produced popular impressions which still exist. (NY Times)
Afterwords, he lays out Google’s plan for a ‘digital library of Alexandria’ and frames their efforts as “for the public”. But, with all due respect, I don’t think he’s being very honest. The electric car hasn’t been suppressed for a hundred years thanks to a confluence of “mishaps”. There’s the tyranny of petrol-mad plutocrats & corporations, systemic fraud, and the scandal of self-interest to blame for this tragic lapse. Similarly, Google’s dominion over wide swaths of digital content seems more likely to perpetuate and formalize information hegemonies rather than undercut them. Throughout Google’s defence they’ve illustrated their corporatist agenda by referring to the public as “customers”, but is this the type of information economy of the future? Although the corporatist outlook still holds sway, things are changing. Obviously, the future will include massive amounts of digitization, but Google, in the popular parlance, is “doing it wrong”.
Here’s a brief video made by Dr. Wesch’s digital ethnography program at KSU that illustrates the digital revolution I think the public really needs:
In the past I’ve discussed the educational potential of e-books. It’s important to note that Google’s plan would bring more content into the public domain… but I’m unconvinced this is the way we should be proceeding. Many of the world’s economic woes root back to artificial scarcities. How does a Google-imposed scarcity of content liberate the masses? Oh, that’s right… Google’s a corporation…. they’re sociopaths! Google’s plan – or one like it – appears unstoppable. The autocrats *will* have their service, and access *will* be limited. Confronted by insurmountable establishmentarianism, yet another epochal moment comes and passes with but a whimper.
We are the enslaved, and it will not be televised or Googled.