OP-EDS

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November 10, 2005

A possible compromise for Google Print

Sergey Brin and Larry Page are learning a hard lesson right now: It is hard to be good. So far, their company—Google, whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil”—has done it quite well. They simplified the web, e-mail, maps, and a host of other key internet services. However, their latest initiative, “Google Print,” has run afoul of some rather important groups: authors, publishers, and now, Congress.

The reason? Brin and Page’s latest endeavor aims to digitize the libraries of major research institutions the world over. Starting with Stanford, the University of Michigan, Oxford, and a few others, they hope to place entire catalogues of published work searchable for free on the internet. The publishing industry nets $30 billion per year. For some reason, Google, looking incredibly threatening with $7 billion sitting in the bank (raised through their IPO), expects them to simply roll over and play dead, while they nose around with their business model.

Google Print raises serious questions on the nature of the intersection between private intellectual property and public intellectual discourse. Google Print, though it promises to radically further Google’s self-proclaimed mission to organize the world’s information, is a direct challenge to the primacy of “analog entertainment” (i.e. physically digestible forms of media like books, CDs, DVDs, et cetera), which so far has seen an orderly, and somewhat profitable, transition to digital forms of consumption.

The major worry about Google Print’s Library Project is that it violates the “Fair Use” clause of U.S. copyright law, Section 107 of Title 17 of the US Code. Secti n 107 states that whether the “use” of the copyrighted material is “fair” is determined by examining it in the light of four factors: first, the purpose and character of the use, i.e. is it for profit or for education; second, “the nature of the copyrighted work”; third, how much of the work is used in relation to the whole; and fourth, the effect the use will have upon the market for the work in the future.

Google argues that it is simply doing “good” by making previously inaccessible texts searchable. The critics say they are destroying the market incentives to produce and distribute copyrighted work.

To the extent that the history of humanity is a history of recorded text, written work in spirit belongs to the canon of our collective soul, and, in a pure realization of culture, written words would belong to the collective consciousness, and would be easily accessible. In the present situation, the search for knowledge is hampered by the lack of human ability. We lack the ability to know all, and therefore progress occurs haphazardly, with disparate progress limited by strict barriers to entry and exit in nearly all areas of human advancement. Barring biotechnological revolution allowing for searchable collective consciousness, electronic categorization presents the next best option for the efficient collection of human knowledge.

Unfortunately for Google, market incentives remain the premier method by which private companies take upon themselves the burden of transmitting the written word through mass-produced, distributed, and standardized texts. A press, be it private or university, costs money, and that money is recouped through the sale of the product.

The answer to how to balance the need to categorize human knowledge with the need to provide incentives for creating human knowledge (or at least disseminating it) lies in taking the Aristotelian middle path. Google Print, in order to succeed legally and commercially (because we mustn’t forget that Google is hoping to make a profit off this venture as well, through selling ads targeted to those searching the books), will need to trim its ambitions just slightly.

A formulation of the Google Print Library Project that is actually focused on public and university libraries is the solution. Every town, every neighborhood, every university has a public library with a computer connected to the Internet. By turning Google Print into a service provided to public libraries (linked to their specific and verified IP addresses), Google can turn the venture into something far greater than a searchable database; it can re-ignite this country’s long history of communal intellectual curiosity.

The proposed formulation of the Google Print Library Project would work something like this: Every library’s public computers would have access to the complete Google Print Library Project, using their current “Fair Use” standards, where only snippets of the text are viewable on the search screen. However, all books in the Library’s hard collection (synchronized through a secure database of ISBN numbers) would be completely searchable and readable. GPLP would also allow users to both vote on new acquisitions for the library and find the nearest library at which a hard copy could be accessed. Google Print would still allow works whose copyright has expired to be fully searchable and readable over the internet, but would restrict all protected content to private homes.

This compromise allows Google, and Congress, a way out. This iteration of the Google Print Library Project limits the flow of copyrighted information to libraries, where copyrighted works are already on display. Furthermore, it creates an explicit product to sell to libraries (the database, which will allow patrons to search the entire collection of the specific library), and therefore works within the existing distribution paradigm: Tax-payers support the dissemination of information through funding libraries, and therefore, GPLP is simply an outgrowth of that aim of public policy.

Congress comes out on top as well, as the new Google Print Library Project will further support communal learning in school libraries, public libraries, and university libraries, while still protecting the rights of authors and publishing companies.

Though it may not be what Google envisioned when it embarked on the Library Project, this iteration sounds like it too will “do good.”