Google and the Future of Books – Robert Darnton’s must read article

Google Book Search car
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 If you are at all interested in the future of books and the digitising of collections you must read Robert Darnton‘s article ‘Google and the Future of Books’ written for ‘The New York Review of Books‘. In it he discusses the efforts by Google to digitise millions of books from the collections of research libraries to enable these texts to be searched online. If my reading of the article is correct, Google has recently settled a lawsuit with authors and publishers who were suing for alleged violation of their copyright due to the digitisation of their work. The settlement that has been reached entails the following (I’m taking the liberty of quoting Robert’s words at length here. I can see no better way to explain the decision and its ramifications);

The settlement creates an enterprise known as the Book Rights Registry to represent the interests of the copyright holders. Google will sell access to a gigantic data bank composed primarily of copyrighted, out-of-print books digitized from the research libraries. Colleges, universities, and other organizations will be able to subscribe by paying for an “institutional license” providing access to the data bank. A “public access license” will make this material available to public libraries, where Google will provide free viewing of the digitized books on one computer terminal. And individuals also will be able to access and print out digitized versions of the books by purchasing a “consumer license” from Google, which will cooperate with the registry for the distribution of all the revenue to copyright holders. Google will retain 37 percent, and the registry will distribute 63 percent among the rightsholders.

Meanwhile, Google will continue to make books in the public domain available for users to read, download, and print, free of charge. Of the seven million books that Google reportedly had digitized by November 2008, one million are works in the public domain; one million are in copyright and in print; and five million are in copyright but out of print. It is this last category that will furnish the bulk of the books to be made available through the institutional license.

Many of the in-copyright and in-print books will not be available in the data bank unless the copyright owners opt to include them. They will continue to be sold in the normal fashion as printed books and also could be marketed to individual customers as digitized copies, accessible through the consumer license for downloading and reading, perhaps eventually on e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.

While this represents availabilty of knowledge on an unprecedented scale at what may be a reasonable cost, it also represents the kind of monopoly by a business of an unprecedented scale with the  product being knowledge. And this is where Libraries have missed the boat. As Robert refers to in the article, the opportunity was there to realise the Alexandrian library dream and create a National (international, really) Digital Library with access based on reasonable fees for all. The challenge exists now for Google to not put profit before the public good and ensure that they realise the dream and not destroy it with eagerness for shareholder and company profit.

Robert speaks of what this decision means for Google’s stakehold in all our lives; 

“….the settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original “Big Google,” we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.”

It’s not just Americans feeling the effect of Google Robert, it’s a worldwide phenomenum. I love much of what this company is doing to enable access and delivery of information, but we have to keep in mind that they are a business and not a philanthropic institution. There is the possibility of the stranglehold having an effect on access if the costs they charge get too high. It will be up to us all to keep them in check.  

Please click the link and read the article for yourself. There is so much in it for consideration and there is no way I have done it full justice here.  


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