Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Biting the hand that feeds them

In the August 2005 issue of American Libraries (sorry, the article in question is password-protected) I read that the Association of American Publishers have asked Google to implement a six-month moratorium on its much-ballyhooed Google Print Library Project, whereby Google had formed a partnership with a small group of research libraries (including Harvard) to digitize millions of books from their combined collections. It seems that the publishers are concerned about copyright issues, insinuating that the "fair use" provision of Section 107 of the Copyright Act -- which permits single copies of works within copyright or the reproduction of certain portions of a copyrighted work to be made for nonprofit or educational use -- does not and should not apply in Google's case.

This is absurd. As Google's representative pointed out in the article, the company already bends over backwards to respect the rights of copyright holders, allowing a user of Google Print only to view a tiny portion of a copyrighted work (in fact doing far more than the letter of the law specifies in this regard) and even giving publishers the right to opt out entirely. In most circumstances using Google Print is only the start of a reference inquiry. A successful search will point the user to the book desired, at which point he or she will either consult a library holding the item -- which had been paid for fair and square, mind you! -- or purchase it outright. In the case of the Google Print Library Project, only authorized library patrons would be allowed to view the fulltext of a copyrighted work.

Ironically, the subset of publishers most vocally opposed to Google's project is the Association of American University Presses, which out of all of the realm of traditional content provides stands to gain most from a product like Google Print. It is not a secret that libraries across the board are spending less and less money on the acquisition of monographs. Particularly hard-hit have been the monographs cranked out by university presses, as after enjoying decades of a baksheesh-like arrangement with academic libraries by which the former published hideously overpriced scholarly titles written by faculty and the latter bought them (with university funds, natch!), there's simply not enough money in the budget to keep that gravy train trundling along for books which are reviewed once and never consulted again -- an expensive vanity press maintained by skyrocketing tuition and shrinking Federal funds.

What Google Print has done, however, is given the world of scholarly monographs a shot in the arm. Now instead of mouldering on the shelves these books are regularly turning up in even the most casual of inquiries! Work that was before only appreciated by that faculty author's inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances can today reach anyone who has a computer with internet access. Google has given millions of such never-read books free advertising -- much more than the publishers themselves have given what they deemed materials of limited appeal -- and hence a new life, and the AAUP wants to shut it all down? Talk about biting the hand that feeds them.

The larger issue here, of course, is one of control. Publishing companies have long since evolved away from their original role as co-creators in the intellectual and editorial content they now purvey. They are now middlemen, pure and simple, and until now their reign over the world of media has been one of unchallenged consolidation and growth. Enter their first real competitor, Google (and to a limited extent Amazon, though they have traditionally been more of an enabler for the traditional publishing industry), who have rightly understood that knowledge wants to be not only as accessible as possible, but inexpensive as well, if not free.

What Google loses in lucrative exclusive deals like that between academic libraries and university presses it gains in market share, and as its customer base continues to grow it will have the increasing wherewithal to lobby for more open access to intellectual property, just as the powerful Walt Disney Company has historically had Congress at its beck and call to keep it locked up. But while Google threatens to turn the entire publishing industry on its head, I think few of those most threatened seem to apprehend that such a revolution will benefit all but the ones who currently profit most from the market's inequities. What Amazon has shown us is that given the means and a reasonable price, people will buy books; what Google Print is about to show us is that intellectual curiosity does not begin and end with the ivory tower.

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