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I imagine that Google’s proposal to scan and archive the world’s literature will seem to the majority of people either a truly heinous proposal or an absolutely fantastic idea.
On the one hand, we have one of the most powerful companies in the world getting its grubby fingers all over everything from the most prized examples of western literature to the obscurest of engineering textbooks. On the other, we have a potentially incredible online library offering users unprecedented access to out-of-print texts and popular academic tomes.
So what is it – an evil masterplan or an honest (if slightly misguided in its execution) attempt to fulfil Google’s mission statement: ‘to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.’?
Google Books is EVIL
- It uses a controversial ‘opt out’ scheme, introduced by the search engine behemoth to get around potential copyright issues. After experiencing a few problems gaining the rights to texts, Google simply asked rights-holders to opt in or out of the scheme as they saw fit – written a book and need to opt-out? Unfortunately you already missed the Google Books deadline.
- Opting in presents authors with certain cash benefits and increases exposure for books which are currently out of print, but does, at a glance, appear to be more in Google’s favour, containing clauses making it impossible for authors to remove their texts from the database after the first 27 months.
- The scheme also automatically allows Google to index and scan the books whose copyright holders are either dead, untraceable or choose to take no notice of the whole thing. Thus Google gains exclusive rights to these books, creating what New York University professor James Grimmelmann, speaking in Wired has dubbed a monopoly, “(from) Day One, it will be illegal for anyone else to do what Google is doing.”*
- According to an online article published on Reuters, a Google engineer has been quoted as saying, “We’re not scanning these books to be read by people. We’re scanning them to be read by [our] AI”. This huge influx of unique content can only make Google as a search engine, even more powerful. It will also create a massive number of new pages on which they can sell targeted advertising.
- And finally, on a somewhat darker yet admittedly vaguer note, the idea of Google holding the purse-strings to the bulk of published Western knowledge as well as its internet counterpart has got book-lovers, publishers, authors, intellectuals and academics everywhere feeling a little unnerved.
Google Books; What a Great Idea!
Conspiracy theories and cynicism aside, there are plenty of potentially positive aspects of the Google Books scheme:
- Popular academic textbooks and anthologies of criticism will be available to multiple users, ending the annoyance of having to reserve and then wait for important texts.
- The huge number of books currently out of print will suddenly be made available online benefiting authors, users – everyone really.
- Google Books as a resource will be incomparable. The idea that all the books in existence could be made available at the click of a button, whether it’s free or for a small fee, is breathtaking.
- The resource will no doubt work well as a method by which readers discover new authors, even unpublished authors. Could we have an unpublished author’s equivalent of MySpace on our hands?
- For the ailing publishing industry, the idea of having Google on their side is no doubt an attractive one. The incorporation of what many perceive to be an outmoded format (books) into the digital world may result in a sharp rise in popularity for the written word – could Google Books civilise the internet?
What Happens Next?
Well Google Books isn’t even approved yet. A ‘Fairness Hearing’ will take place on the 7th October, and it is that which will decide the fate of Google Books as a concept in its current form. Even then the opt-out arrangement will only apply in the US, the European Commission are still discussing it so it may be some time before we in the UK start to feel the impact.
So where do you stand in the Google Books debate? I’m still not sure myself – I just feel sorry for the guys doing the scanning.
* Please note – Professor Grimmelmann’s research was proudly sponsored by Microsoft.