Thoughts on Google BookSearch

A link to a long piece in The New York Review of Books from Robert Darnton, covering a lot of the territory that needs to be covered as we move towards ubiquitous digital books. In particular he examines the possible consequences of the recent settlement between Google and publishers:

here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business…

Darnton’s concern is that Google will essentially become a monopoly on the e-books business:

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement.

It’s an interesting point, but one that shouldn’t remain uncontested. Indeed, Tim O’Reilly writes:

It is true, perhaps, in the narrow sense, that no other party will be able to do a mass digitization project on the scale of Google’s – but that was already true. The barrier has always been the willingness to spend a lot of money for little return; the settlement doesn’t change that.

Meanwhile, the settlement provides absolutely no barrier to publishers providing their own digital copies, and this is in fact happening.

He goes on:

Frankly, I’d be far more worried about Darnton’s wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate.

Managing cultural outcomes is always a difficult thing, and at first glance this appears to be a ‘market’ v ‘regulation’ debate. I’ve always thought that the middle ground requires a standards-setting process from the regulators within which a market can operate. So some work in ensuring interoperability in the ebook realm, and open access to that standard would be incredibly valuable to users. We already live in a world where there is a plethora of digital content available and savvy users have access to the tools to utilise that content, regardless of the provider. Whilst there are arguments about itunes and its dominance of the downloaded music market, they need to be balanced against the undeniable ease-of-use that Apple’s service has provided for its users.

Governments (as with other large, entrenched institutions like publishing companies) sometimes don’t get it. A decade and a bit ago, the Oz Government’s Creative Nation policy picked CD-ROMs as a useful interim technology for delivering cultural content and spent big on a project that delivered a range of (good and bad) CD-ROM content to schools and the general public. It mirrored the book publishers’ embrace of the medium in the mid to late 1990s – and whilst useful (particularly for those involved), it didn’t properly understand the rate and direction of change. Of course, many people didn’t back then (myself included) so I’m not pointing fingers. Merely pointing out that sometimes Governments should act and sometimes they should react. For the moment, I’m inclined to let the market reign in Google’s excesses. After all, Jeff Bezos has already declared that Amazon’s vision is ” every book, ever printed, in any language, all available within 60 seconds.”

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