Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Sympathy for the devil: When it comes to its library scanning program, is Google really such a villain?

Google Books


Google Books has been headed for a lawsuit since 2005. They were headed for trial! It got blocked! People regrouped! We debated! We agonized! We…eventually lost interest because it has been going on since 2005.

This is the Internet age. If it takes more than 10 seconds to arrive or can’t be summed up in 500 words, we’re gonna go watch videos of sleepy kittens on YouTube.

Okay, so not everyone completely didn’t care. There’s the Authors Guild, for one. And on May 31, Judge Denny Chin granted the AG’s motion for class certification. It looks like the trial may be moving forward as a class-action lawsuit. According to a wonderfully informative article from PW, Chin decided that class action is appropriate since there are sufficient commonalities among the works scanned (i.e. every book), and that “‘Because Google treated the copyright holders as a group, the copyright holders should be able to litigate on a group basis.'” Authors may be distinguished by subgroups for more appropriate treatment; Chin offered that the court could divide authors into  “‘subgroups for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and cookbooks.'”

Am I the only one who thinks that the biggest difference between authors might not be their genre? Maybe, rather than dividing the novelists from the poets, we should instead focus on the authors’ individual wishes to be or not to be searchable on Google Books. Just like we can have mixed feelings on Amazon, we can be a little bit ambivalent about Google’s wholesale scanning of every book. I understand that copyright infringement isn’t cool. Still, I think Google did make some concessions to authors by trying to keep its scanning within the confines of fair use; authors were able to opt out of snippet view and determine just how much of their book they wanted to be available on Google.

Moreover, the Authors Guild does not represent independent authors. Yet if its complaints are heard, it could radically alter how Google is allowed to treat all authors—even those who aren’t worried about Google’s infringement of copyright.

In many cases I would wager that at least being searchable in snippet view is beneficial, rather than harmful, to many authors. I have not once ever decided not to buy a book after viewing it on Google Books. In fact, I have discovered books that I never would have known existed otherwise.

Plus, as an aside, Google Books (and a byproduct of the scanning project, the endlessly enjoyable Ngram Viewer) is just, well, really cool. I love being able to search for a term and find it in any book. Because I’m a total nerd, most of my glee derives from being able to search the text of ancient and out-of-print works. But it’s also endlessly useful to be able to search for instances of terms within books in print and in copyright. If I’m intrigued enough, I might buy the book.

In any case, the lawsuit appears to be (finally) moving forward—and I’ll be fascinated to watch as it moves forward. Author concern over copyright infringement is one thing. Consumer attitude toward copyright is quite another, as is our understanding of its consequences. Just look at the controversy over SOPA and PIPA earlier this year. Could we be moving into a culture of more permissive attitudes toward copyright, intellectual property, and creators’ rights?


This entry was posted on June 7, 2012 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , , , , .

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