Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

July 10, 2011 The Google Books Project

The Google Books Project

In the February 5, 2007 issue of the New Yorker magazine Jeffrey Toobin wrote an article, “Google’s Moon Shot” which describes Google’s travails with its ”Google Books Project” .I had run across a descripton of this project around 2003 and, at the time, I thought it was the coolest thing since painless dentistry and the invention of sunglasses. However , after reading Toobin’s article, I was made to realize that this was a more complicated situation than I had previously thought. And most all of the issues center around copyright law and the relatively new concept of “intellectual property”. The following is what I wrote about it at that time.

The Google Books Project is an attempt to recreate the Library at Alexandria but with a major major improvement.  Instead of millions of books standing alone on the shelves allowing access only by primitive filing systems, Google scans and digitizes every book into computer-accessible format. Then books in the library can be linked together in the same way Google can search and link web sites.  Imagine being able to read a book with clickable links --- you’d run the risk of never finishing it! But it would allow you to create your personal digital library based on themes like heirloom apple pie recipes or pre-Byzantine sex perversions (just joking) instead of by individual volumes as books are currently constructed.   Whether Google can pull off this ambitious project remains to be seen.

There are also some interesting copyright problems that arise with the authors and the publishers of books, some of whom are contributing to the project while at the same time, they are pursuing copyright infringement lawsuits.  This strange situation arises from an ancient desire: here’s a hint --- what is the root of all evil?  Right, the greed for money.  It’s all about ownership rights and who gets to profit by how much.  Here’s how it works:
Google is busily scanning tens of thousands of  books into their database (i.e. Library) each week from several major libraries (Stanford, Harvard, Oxford as well as the New York Public Library). What do these libraries have to gain from this? Google has contracts with its libraries that stipulate that the library gets its entire collection digitized at no cost  and a free electronic copy of each book Google also has contracts with nearly every major American publisher which stipulate that when one of these publishers’ books is called up in response to a user’s search query, Google displays a portion of text --- snippets of each chapter usually – and provides links to the publisher’s website and sites like Amazon where the user can buy the book.

The formal issue in the court is that the authors and publishers claim that the scanning part of the project violates copyright law  and that Google will make money from their ads and they want to make sure that they get a good share of this potential revenue pool.  In other words, all of the stakeholders in this drama are fighting for their piece of the pie while technology is blithely shredding the established relationships between artists and their distributribution systems.

After five years of litigation, in October 2008, Google finally reached a settlement with the authors and the publishers.
“Under the agreement, Google offered to pay $125 million and create the framework for a new system that would channel payments from book sales, advertising revenue and other fees to authors and publishers, with Google collecting a cut.  But in March 2011, a federal judge in New York rejected the company's $125 million class-action settlement with authors and publishers, saying the deal went too far in granting Google rights to exploit books without permission from copyright owners.”
As of  July 3, “A hearing on the Google Books settlement has been postponed to July with no indication that the parties have been able to overcome the thorny issue that led a judge to strike down the original settlement. “
This is indeed a thorny issue and it will be in interesting to follow the drama of  “Whither Google Books?”as it unfolds.

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