Stacks of booksBack in 2002 Google began to undertake a secret book digitization project of mammoth proportions.  They partnered with some of the most prestigious universities in the world and began to digitize the tens of thousands of books that the held that were out of print and out of copyright.  It was a lofty goal, aside from the technical hurdles that had to be overcome just to get through all of the books, but also to make them easily accessible for research and study over the Internet.  They then went on to expand their digitization efforts to include even more books, and entered into agreements with publishers to make use of “orphan works,” books who are still in copyright but that are out of print and whose copyright owners are unable to be found.  Basically Google wanted to make these orphan works available as well, and most people would probably say that this was a good thing at least on principal.  For schools and educational institutions this would be huge, opening up vast amounts of hard to find knowledge and doing it in a way that would probably be very low cost or free.  Not everyone liked the idea though, and maybe there are some good reasons why.
It wasn't long after Google went public with the plan that the lawsuits started flying.  Not every publisher was consulted or brought into the agreement before Google set it up, and several publishers both in the US and abroad protested loudly saying that Google was infringing on their rights as copyright holders.  On March 22nd, 2011 a federal judge said no to the whole deal despite the fact that Google had agreed to pay $125 million dollars to publishers and had also already scanned over 15 million books.  For many of the people in academia who applauded the project this may seem like a big problem and a blow against the free and open use of historical information.  Maybe it is, but there is also a silver lining in this whole mess that may wind up making things even better in the long run.

Why The Google Books Ruling Is Actually A Good Thing

While most people like Google and appreciate all of the good things that they provide for us (free stuff like email, calendars, search, etc. etc. etc. etc.....)  the fact of the matter is that Google is a company that seeks to make a profit and despite their “Don’t Be Evil” policy they have in the recent past started to tread on the dark side of the force so to speak.  Recent decisions to desecrate the tenets of net neutrality and other similarly evil leaning actions have made many people begin to question whether Google has the public interest at the forefront of their thinking these days.  If Google had been allowed to go on with the project as they had intended it would in effect give them a monopoly on out of print and orphan works, allowing them to profit from other people’s writings by reproducing those works either in digital or paper form and shutting out other companies from doing the same.  Indeed, the home page of  Google Books points out that you can already buy over 3 million books directly from their online store.  Imagine if the deal had gone through and Google could add the other millions of scanned titles to that total.  The profit potential on such a mountain of material would be incredible but it would also potentially shut out other companies from providing fair competition as there are very few companies in the world that have the cash reserves to digitize even a fraction of that same material.

In A Perfect World...

In order for this entire digitization process to be truly in the public interest any agreement should include more stringent protections for the copyright holders but it should also extend the reprinting rights of these works to other publishers and online entities.  Amazon and Microsoft are two of the big names that were suing Google over the plan, obviously for personal commercial interests, but indirectly they are also lobbying for fair competition which would in turn foster fair and reasonable pricing for these millions of books.  Does Google deserve the right to recoup the millions of dollars they have spent in digitizing the works?  Yes, but when something is for the public good no single company should be able to profit from the efforts of hundreds of thousands of other people.  Google has made billions of dollars thanks to the global public, and there are very few ways that Google truly gives back to the global community without getting something back in return (even Gmail makes money for the company).  

It’s Not Just About Books

Once a final agreement is approved in this project it will open the door to much more than just reprints of hundred year old books.  It will also open the door to publishers and customers to get at other works as well.  The precedent that is made in this case will doubtless be extended to other media as well, such as sheet music and even old audio recordings.  We have to get this right the first time, so that all of these various forms of media can benefit from the same digitization and archiving that the book project will.  Once all of that information is available online in an easily searchable way the world will have changed for the better.  There will be no more need for printing books as we will be able to Kindle or Nook them instead, or pull them up on our iPhone or Android phones.  No more need to drive to the library and waste gas or print off dozens of pages unless you truly need it.  The digitization of the world’s archival information is a good thing, and we need to get it right the first time.

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