Short Term Profits Over Long Term Principles; Google's Caving On Book Scanning Is Bad News
from the unfortunate-reality dept
Today the tech/business press was filled with stories about how Google has settled the lawsuits from authors and publishers over its book scanning project. Google is paying $125 million, and will be changing some of how its book search system works. Authors and publishers will allow books to go online, but it locks Google in to a specific business model that might not be the most reasonable and, most importantly, it does not answer the legal question concerning the overall legality of book scanning. Pretty much any way you look at it, Google caved here — and this is unfortunate for a variety of reasons.
Two years ago, there was a story in the NY Times about how Google’s legal department saw all of these lawsuits against the company as a way to stand up on principle and make better law. Specifically, the company positioned itself as being willing to fight certain lawsuits on principle in order to get precedent setting rulings on the books in support of openness, fair use, safe harbors and many other important issues. The company suggested that, rather than settle, it would fight these lawsuits knowing that it alone, with its big war chest of money, could fight some of these battles that tiny startups could never afford.
It may not be surprising, but it’s safe to say those days are long gone. We’ve been seeing it time and time again, from Google’s decision to pay off entertainment companies not to sue YouTube to the decision to pay off the Associated Press for including its headlines in Google News. Perhaps one of the biggest legal battles, however, was over Google’s book scanning project. Google took it upon itself to scan numerous books and make the results searchable online. The company put significant restrictions in place, such that it’s almost impossible for someone to do a search and read the entire book that way. You can only see a few consecutive pages. You can’t print. However, you can search and find new and interesting books that you might want to buy. I know I’ve bought dozens of books this way.
Not surprisingly, authors and publishers sued Google over this, and went around claiming how awful it was — even though it was really not all that different than creating a much better card catalog for books. The purpose was to help people find more books that were useful, rather than to break any sort of copyright. And, in fact, studies showed that books that showed up in Google’s search improved sales. In other words, it should have been a win-win situation all around. But, like so many content providers, authors and publishers falsely overvalue the content and undervalue services that make that content more valuable.
However, more important that was the simple principle of the whole thing. Last year the New Yorker ran a fantastic article explaining how having authors and publishers quibble over copyright issues while preventing the widespread archiving and sharing of information may turn out to be one of the most ridiculous arguments ever, while our culture get locked up and fades away.
So, it’s quite upsetting to see Google cave on this. The settlement does not establish any sort of precedent on the legality of creating such an index of books, and, if anything pushes things in the other direction, saying that authors and publishers now have the right to determine what innovations there can be when it comes to archiving and indexing works of content. Unfortunately, this was really inevitable. As was the case with Google caving on YouTube and the Associated Press, it becomes a situation where Google realizes it can throw a little cash at the problem to make it go away — while also creating a large barrier to entry for any more innovative startup. From a short-term business perspective this might make sense, but from a long-term business perspective (and wider cultural perspective) it’s terrible.
It will only encourage more lawsuits against Google for trying to innovate, as more and more people hope that Google will settle and throw some cash their way. Furthermore, it greatly diminishes the incentives for making books more useful, and that’s damaging to our cultural heritage. While it was always silly to believe that Google ever really operated on a higher principled stance, rather than a short-term business focus, this settlement is tremendously disappointing.