The new badboy in town: Google
Google, everyone’s favorite ‘good guy’ in business and technology is starting to stir the pot something dangerous. Google Book Search is aiming to digitize the world’s written works into an online, searchable library. No one disputes that this is a great idea. The problem is that Google would be the sole proprietor of all of this information. Information that the world could benefit from. My opinions follow that of the Open Book Alliance’s stance (who consists of Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, along with other big names in web and information) on the issue.
The Open Book Alliance feels that “the mass digitization of books promises to bring tremendous value to consumers, libraries, scholars, and students.” The problem is that at this point, the US government is not very likely to fund a project of this magnitude. Google happens to have the resources to do it effectively without burdening the tax payer.
The trade off is that the corporate giant will own the rights to the product of this endeavor. Naturally their intentions go beyond serving the public. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin stated “I’ve been surprised at the level of controversy there, because digitalizing the world’s books to make them available; there’s been nobody else who’s attempted it at our scale.” It’s obvious that Google’s intentions are to profit off this in some way. And why shouldn’t they? If they can accomplish such a feat they deserve to make money off of advertising, crating new technology by training AI on a massive scale of information, and making it easy to access the information. The problem comes with the ownership of the data. It opens the doors for Google to hold the infinite information in these books hostage for profit in the form of subscription services and the like.
One of the problems that Google’s project raises with publishers is the potential of distribution of orphan works. Orphan works (in this context,) are books and journals who’s publishers either don’t exist or have unknown proprietors. These works do not quite qualify for public domain, but are being included in Google’s Book Search. Google is taking the scan first, ask permission later approach. In other words, they will distribute books that aren’t claimed by a publisher or author unless explicitly told not to by the owner. Ultimately this can (and in many cases will) lead to illegal distribution of published work if the proprietor does not speak up.
It’s fair to hope that Google will be responsible with their mass of knowledge, but that’s just not enough. By ensuring that the project is done with the public’s best interest in mind it’s important to set the rules before the game starts. The Open Book Alliance has set some baseline requirements that they would like too see addressed in the Google settlement. One of which is that “the settlement must result in the creation of a true digital library that grants all researchers and users, commercial and non-commercial, full access that guarantees the ability to innovate on the knowledge it contains.” This more or less encompasses the argument against Google’s Book Search project.
The amount and type of information that would potentially be at Google’s finger tips once this project is complete, would be difficult for Google’s corporate competitors (and impossible for small startup businesses) to replicate. Thus creating a monopoly in the form of digital information. Information that until now has been free to access for the public through the use of libraries. By updating this information for the modern digital age, Google will be creating a whole new domain for innovation.
If Google opens up the data that is collected to the public, they will still have the competitive edge on the technology by being able to get a head start on utilizing the information as the proprietors of the means to create the digital library. For example, they can develop early search technology to work with the digital library during the course of acquisition of the books. Thus, they can still profit off of the fruits of their labors whilst still leaving the window open for competitors to innovate and expand on the public domain of knowledge in a new format.