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October 07, 2012 12:32 PM Google’s Do-Gooder Myth

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Since it began its so-called “secret books project” in 2002, Google has scanned 20 million books from university libraries, usually displaying portions of each book for free, and making them fully-searchable. For that effort, it has spent much of the past decade embroiled in litigation with publishers and authors who contend the company is violating copyright law. Well, late this week, news came that Google finally resolved one of the major lawsuits against it, agreeing to allow publishers the right to withdraw their books from Google’s digital library after they had been scanned, and to display no more than 20% of each book online. (A more contentious class-action suit filed by authors is still ongoing.)

Google’s settlement represents a major concession. Earlier this summer, the company maintained that it was well within its “fair-use” rights to scan and display portions of any book it pleased. Undergirding the legalese was a high-minded conception of the project. “Google Books was born of the realization that much of the store of human knowledge lies in books on library shelves where it is very difficult to find,” the company wrote in a July legal memorandum. “Books exist to be read. Google Books exists to help readers find those books.”

On its surface, Google’s goal can seem admirable: Not only is it opening up a whole realm of information to people without access to it, but it might actually be helping authors and publishers publicize their books. What it seems blind to, of course, is the fact that readers often pick and choose what they want from Google’s free books without ever buying them. More broadly, the effort is emblematic of Google’s belief that it is something of a passive vehicle for knowledge; any effort to restrict its quest to make information as transparent as possible is inherently un-democratic. But Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto/worldview, which seems directed not so much inward, but at all the malevolent luddites impeding its plans, is problematic in its own right.

Evgeny Morozov, in a 2011 New Republic piece, argued that in some respect, Google’s book scanning is just a continuation of existing political and technological trends.

The growing penetration of market solutions into sectors that were traditionally managed by public institutions—from fighting wars to managing prisons and from schooling to health care—has made Google’s forays into digitizing books appear quite normal, set against the dismal state of public libraries and the continued sell-out of higher education to the highest corporate bidder.

Yet, while Morozov doesn’t explicitly condemn the book scanning project, he hints at its potentially dangerous utopianism.

Thee conquest of omne scibile—“everything knowable”—has been a cornerstone of many utopian projects, from Edward Bellamy’s passionate call for accessible and resourceful libraries in Looking Backward to H.G. Wells’s idea of the “World Brain,” which he described as “a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing, and release of knowledge.”

Google’s belief in the inherent nobility—and historical inevitability—of its mission has rendered it blind to the possibility that by monopolizing information it might eventually accomplish something completely undemocratic. In holding the keys to the world’s digital library—without paying for its rights—it could initiate a race to the bottom in which it lures readers to its website by offering that library up for free or very low cost. Indeed, as Robert Darnton has ">pointed out, Google’s books database doesn’t really resemble a public library at all. Which helps explain why in 2011, a federal judge ">rejected an earlier settlement that would have allowed Google to freely scan and publish every book in the world, on the grounds that it had created a monopoly for itself.

Google wants to treat all human knowledge as mere information, ripe for the sharing, without worrying much about who’s producing it or whether to compensate them adequately. That impulse, Morozov argues, stems from Google’s inability to view itself as anything but a public good: “They have a hard time imagining an outside world where Google is seen as just another greedy corporation that might have incentives to behave unethically.” Thursday’s settlement may be the start of a corrective process by which they begin to live up to their own ideals.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.

Comments

  • Mad_nVt on October 07, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Hey Simon, Re: "Thursday’s settlement may be the start of a corrective process by which they begin to live up to their own ideals."

    Dream on.

    There's money at stake, so the ideals slide away. Just another greedy corporation.

    Get used to it.

  • Rick B on October 07, 2012 1:08 PM:

    "By holding the keys to the world’s digital library—without paying for its rights—it could initiate a race to the bottom in which it lures readers to its website by offering that library up for free or very low cost."

    That sounds an awful lot like the way Microsoft imposed its third-rate Internet Explorer browser on the Internet. Any improvements in the browser technology since then have come in spite of Microsoft, not because of them.

  • c u n d gulag on October 07, 2012 1:28 PM:

    Google is far, far from the worst, but we need to remember that corporations aren't people, folks - so how can we ask them to act benevolently?

    To exist, people need air, water, food, shelter, and other people - all corprations need to keep existing is profits.

  • Stephen T on October 07, 2012 1:44 PM:

    I needed to download a few books in public domain from Google books when I was traveling and found them to be so riddled with errors as to be almost useless. This is particularly true of plays that rely on formatting. I find eBooks on the whole to contain many more mistakes than those published on paper, even from big publishers. But Google books are by far the worst.

  • Consumatopia on October 07, 2012 2:07 PM:

    If Google has sole control over digitized books, that's undemocratic. The solution is to release the books from Google's control or allow other companies to do the same--not to stop digitizing them or let publishers lock their copyrights down even more.

  • martin on October 07, 2012 3:08 PM:


    If we could make our ridiculous copyright law more in line with what the founding fathers had in mind (to encourage creativity, not lock in profits) we probably wouldn't have this problem.
    In the meantime, pass a law that everybook published in the US has to submit a printed copy and a digital copy to the Library of Congress, which will curate both and make the copy available for research (it could work out a royalty payment) while the copyright exists and release the digital copy when it becomes public domain.
    Yes, more work and money for the LOC, but well worth it.

  • Rick B on October 07, 2012 3:55 PM:

    @Martin,you make a good point.

    Our current copyright law focuses on the rewards that can be taken from a copyright, not on the efforts needed to create something new. A lot of that is a result of using the courts to enforce copyrights, so lawyers get clients by promising the big rewards and promoters improve their chances to get someone to employ them by lobbying to make the rewards bigger. Consider Disney Inc.

  • D Gary Grady on October 07, 2012 3:57 PM:

    @martin: Good idea. In fact, there is already a requirement that a paper copy of every book published in the US be deposited in the Library of Co gress.

  • superdestroyer on October 07, 2012 4:24 PM:

    c u n d gulag,

    I know this is slightly off topic but if corporations are not people, then who can a $4 trillion dollar government exist if the only businesses that exist are single owners or limited partnerships. What would the state of the economy be if every profressional society, every private university, ever not-for-profit hospital had to function as a limited partnership?

    Authors have to realize that the price level is quickly being set to zero. If I cannot find and use the information for free, I am not going to pay them for it. I will just go somewhere else for the information.

  • exlibra on October 07, 2012 4:34 PM:

    If I cannot find and use the information for free, I am not going to pay them for it. I will just go somewhere else for the information. -- superdestroyer, @4:24 PM

    And, if I can't find it elsewhere, I'll happily remain ignorant. It's not as if authors have much to tell me, anyway. They should be happy to give away their scribblings for free, and count their blessings when I condescend to read them.

    You're such a typical Repub, superdestroyer...

  • CharlieM on October 07, 2012 4:36 PM:


    Shorter Simon: Google is the new Napster!

    So..."dangerous utopianism". "Monopolizing" information. How? By giving it away for free? How does that work?

    I suppose you could conjecture some deep conspiracy to put all the publishing businesses out of business so that Google would have all the content which they could then control, I suppose. But when all the ponies have left, you're not going to make a monopoly on them by closing the barn doors.

    Sure, there are problems with copyright in this. But comparisons to MSFT IE are silly. MSFT was attempting to control the delivery vehicle (web browsers and indirectly IP standards), not the content.

    Maybe I'll sleep better tonight knowing that "dangerous utopianism" has been (for the moment) foiled.

    Please.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 07, 2012 5:57 PM:

    "What it seems blind to, of course, is the fact that readers often pick and choose what they want from Google’s free books without ever buying them."

    Really? Do you have any evidence for this? That is to say, that some significantly large number of people are finding what they need only from Google Books such that they don't purchase a book that they otherwise would have?

    Because I find that very unlikely. What I do believe is common, on the other hand, is people finding references within books that they've previously read.

    When someone wants something to reference from a book they've not read (which, frankly, isn't very often because how would they know they want it?), they do so as part of research and would otherwise have done this in a library and not purchased the book then, either.

    This weird notion that there's some large number of people who look up books on Google Books for the purpose of finding something particular in the book, when they would have purchased the book otherwise, is just nonsense. And yet it's the foundation bit of fact upon which the whole edifice of your argument that Google isn't as benevolent as they believe themselves to be.

    Well, they most certainly are not and your thesis itself is sound. You just ought not be building your argument on things you intuit out of thin air.

  • Joseph Miller on October 07, 2012 9:05 PM:

    How about this? A subscription-based World Library. It's my understanding that the world-wide revenue of the publishing industry is about $40 billion per year. Make every book in print fully available online. Make it impossible to download or copy these books, meaning they have to be read online exclusively. Charge people $400 per year to access the Library. I think you could get well over 100 million households on this planet to pay $400 a year for access to all of it. (It's less than what most people pay in a year for cable TV, I'll bet.) There's $40 billion right there. Revenue could be divided on the basis of how many people access a given book. If a million people look at a new potboiler, the author scores big. If only a few people access an obscure academic monograph--well, the author at least gets something for it, and more people might look at the obscure monograph if it were available. (I know I would.) It's just a thought.

  • weirdnoise on October 08, 2012 3:58 AM:

    When someone wants something to reference from a book they've not read (which, frankly, isn't very often because how would they know they want it?), they do so as part of research and would otherwise have done this in a library and not purchased the book then, either.

    Or they find the reference from some sort of textual search. And who might provide such a search?

    I'll give you one guess...

  • Anonymous on October 09, 2012 7:11 AM:

    exlibra

    There is almost no information that is a monopoly of one author. A good example is the use of pay walls for academic journals. There is no reason for them to exist since the authors do not receive any of the money and it limits how much access people have.

    Instead of paying $30 for an academic journal article, it is easier to find the same information from an unwalled source.