Monday, October 17, 2005

The Google Print shakedown

Donna Wentworth at Copyfight points to a pretty good article by Tim Wu at Slate on the "exposure culture" versus the 'control culture", and how it bears on Google Print.

I think Wu's reasonably astute about the principles. However, I also think that it's a mistake to think that opponents of Google Print are really motivated by principles of any kind. The Authors Guild and others do not really want Google Print to omit their books. If they did, then they could just take advantage of Google's offer to opt out, but they're not doing that --- they're trying to get Google to leave everyone's books alone. Why is that?

Well, what goes through an author or publisher's head when confronted with Google Print? Unless (s)he's a complete idiot, it must be something like:

  1. Holy cow, you didn't ask my permission! Get your grubby mitts off my work!
  2. Oh, you'll let me opt out? Fine: "Get your grubby mitts---"
  3. ...wait a second. If I opt out, it just means that other books will get exposure, and mine won't! I'll be at a competitive disadvantage!

This is why the publishers don't want to opt out of Google Print. Each individual publisher knows that unless everyone opts out, the ones who do will be at a disadvantage. And publishers can see at a glance that something like Google Print would increase the total market for books, so they don't even really want everyone to opt out.

Their real goals are twofold:

  • They want a cut of Google's profits. They want to get paid not only on the "back end" (where customers buy their books) but on the "front end" (where customers search for their books).
  • They want control of the sales channel. They especially want to control whether (and how) competing products get presented alongside theirs in search results. As a bonus, they'd love to completely eliminate competition from all those pesky, obscure, out-of-print books, which are only available used and hence net publishers no profits anyway. Coincidentally, these books are the hardest ones to get copyright clearances for, and therefore the ones most likely to be unavailable if Google's required to get explicit permission for each book.

That's all it's about: greed, plain and simple. The principles of copyright are only a fig leaf over publishers' tumescent desire for a piece of the search business.

In the end, this isn't about whether Google Print will continue to exist, because it (or something like it) will. It's only a question of which Google Print our society chooses for itself. If the Authors Guild and their ilk prevail, then the result will be an impoverished Google Print, one with far fewer books (and far fewer older books), and one where publishers hold veto power over the functionality and design of the service. If Google prevails, then the result will be an organic, ever-growing wealth of services, offered by Google and by others, competing with one another to help our society achieve the second and third of S. R. Ranganathan's famous laws of library science: every book its reader, and every reader their book.


  1. I think you have the right read on this one. But isn’t this just another instance on the ongoing attack on the original concept of copyright? Copyright was first intended to be brief in recognition of both the usefulness of giving an incentive to produce work and of the even greater usefulness to society to have a wealth of common knowledge. The dramatic increase in the length of copyright is also just greed. The corporations consider their profits more important to themselves than our cultural heritage is to all the rest of us. Sadly, the public that is hurt by this doesn’t object much. I wish more people would see this greed as theft. I’ve never liked the use of “property rights” language applied to ideas. There are big differences between property and ideas. But we have been suffering under relentless pressure to think of them as the same.

    Google would be having less of a problem if copyright had never been extended in the first place.

  2. Almost all "Copyright" fights in the past 3 decades have been less about the works themselves and more about control of the sales channel. Without control of the sales channel big groups like Music and Movie publishers will have less control and less predictability on how much money they make on any one particualar title. By controling and spoonfeeding the public they can keep us wanting for more, when if we knew about everything out there, we may not rush to buy up the latest round of tripe that they are selling this week.

    While piracy cannot be given a free pass, neither can the control and perversion of the free markets that large copyright owners are doing.

    Google, like Apple, is a company who has power and is using to bring about change and freedom to traditionally closed markets and I wish them both luck!