Google Book Search Critics Ignore The Non-Exclusive Nature Of Scanning Contracts

from the no-monopolies-here dept

Three years ago, Google announced an ambitious effort to scan millions of book in order to create a search engine that would do for books what the original Google search engine did for the web. The debate quickly ran into criticism from publishers who claimed the program was an infringement of the publishers' copyright. Others pointed out that Google's activities were well within the bounds of fair use. The debate has continued on and off ever since. Ars Technica points us to the latest round of this debate. On one side is economist Paul Courant, who was the provost of the University of Michigan when the University became one of Google's first library partners and is now the University's librarian. In his newly created blog, he vigorously defends Michigan's participation in the Google project, pointing out that Google will have the entire seven-million-volume collection digitized within six years, for free, while the competing Open Content Alliance charges "thousands of dollars to digitize books at a rate of tens of thousands of volumes a year." The University of Virginia's Siva Vaidhyanathan responds with a number of criticisms of the deal. In addition to copyright concerns, he's got a number of concerns about what Google will do with the digitized books. He worries about whether Google's search results will be fair, whether Google will promptly correct scanning quality problems, and whether Google will do a good enough job of preserving the files over the long term, and so forth.

These are somewhat puzzling concerns to raise at all given that Google has historically been absolutely obsessive about improving the quality of its search results and archiving useful data. But it also ignores a more fundamental point: Michigan, and Google's other library projects, aren't granting Google exclusive access to anything. Under the terms of the Google-Michigan agreement, Google returns each book after scanning it, and Michigan is free to sign up with other scanning projects, including Google's competitors. It's true that Michigan has agreed not to share the Google-created digital files with others. But the important point here is that those files wouldn't exist at all if not for the agreement. It would hardly be reasonable to expect Google to spend tens of millions of dollars to create digital files that would immediately be available to Google's competitors.

In short, Google is anything but a monopoly. There are already competing book-scanning efforts under way, and if Google's project is a success we can expect more such efforts to be launched in the future. And because Google isn't a monopoly, it doesn't make sense for universities to treat it like one by trying to micromanage every aspect of the service it ultimately offers. In the unlikely event that Google Book Search turns out to be a lousy product, consumers will punish Google by switching to the competing offerings of Microsoft, Yahoo, or others. It's pointless to try to force Google to produce a high-quality product when its competitors already give it plenty of reasons to do so.

Vaidhyanathan also characterizes the Michigan scanning program as "massive corporate welfare," but this, again, doesn't make a lot of sense. The vast majority of the books Google is scanning spend most of their time sitting on shelves unread. In principle, Google is no different from any other library patron: it checks out books, reads them, and returns them. The only difference is that it's doing it on a much larger scale than a normal library patron would. But there's no evidence that Michigan has been playing favorites. If another company approaches Michigan seeking to scan its books on the same terms, and is turned down, then people would have strong grounds for criticism. But that doesn't appear to have happened. Google's just made the best offer so far. The "corporate welfare" label just doesn't fit.


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  1. identicon
    Siva Vaidhyanathan, 1 Dec 2007 @ 7:59am

    Hi. Thanks for all these comments.

    I have outlined my issues in various places far better suited for subtle arguments than the Web. And I will continue to do so. But let me just summarize some of these here.

    Let's be clear here. Michigan and the other libraries control archives worth US$ billions. They don't need Google. Google needs the archives to enlarge its commercial venture. So it's clearly corporate welfare. The libraries are only in this for expediency -- not a core value of librarianship.

    In addition, the Michigan contract is one of the few in which Michigan gets a complete archive of its collection. Most of the libraries in the project get only slivers of their collections back -- and only when Google decides to give them. In addition, the most recent contracts stipulate that the libraries may not make available to digital files until Google gives an OK. Google has all the power, yet the libraries have all the resources. This is a very bad deal. All of these restrictions work against the ethics and ideology of public and academic libraries.

    And as far as exclusivity: there is exclusivity de jure and exclusivity de facto. The competition Tim mentions, such as the OCA, is very small compared to Google. And it has very little cash to spend on this project. In addition, in-house and consortia-led library digitization projects, done with the care and comprehensiveness that libraries have demonstrated for 600 years, have all been stopped thanks to Google's "crowding out" effect.

    So Google, by virtue of its size, status, and market power has an effectively exclusive deal.

    And Tim, please recognize that creating a PageRank-type of index for hyperlinked text is easy compared to doing such a thing with documents that lack metadata tags on the text itself. Full-text search without good metadata is folly. Web search and book search are two completely different projects. Book search is much more challenging and so far a complete failure. Google has no incentive to improve it if no one else offers anything close and Google's ranking themselves serve as a proxy for quality!

    Complicate all this with the fact that such blind faith in Google's commitment to quality ignores the basic historical principle that past results do not mean anything to future ventures, the clear sense on Wall Street and elsewhere that Google is overextending itself, the fact that Google no longer answers to some egalitarian muse but to shareholders, and the fact that Google does not work for us (and never did). This is about accountability.

    Google is a company. It should be acting in its own interest. Libraries serve and answer to the public. Conflating these missions is a grave mistake.


    Consider all that in the light of the fact that Google cannot win in court against these publishers. You can read my UC Davis Law Review article to see why.

    Google is doing more harm than good. It is threatening to undermine fair use with a ridiculous legal argument. It is crowding out quality efforts to extent knowledge with its emphasis on quantity.

    Plus, snippets are useless research tools!

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