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.

Filed Under: book scanning, libraries, michigan
Companies: google, university of michigan

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  1. identicon
    Shun, 3 Dec 2007 @ 11:25am

    Much of the information is out there for free

    I do not even pretend to understand why Google is going this route. I do know that there are many books available as torrents. Copyright does not seem to be an issue, as a practical matter.

    One major difference with books, from music and movies, is that most literature is in the public domain. Writing has been around far longer than recorded music, and the fact that the majority of the United States supports libraries, as opposed to actively burning them down, shows that they are a valuable institution.

    Given that, it is a bit surprising to me that we do not already have a distributed, free library, that anyone can use to download public domain books. There is virtually no storage cost per book (I know the aggregate cost to store all these books on-line may be prohibitive, but compared to a physical library, I'm sure that they are not a whole lot).

    The only issue would be accurate record keeping (making sure that no more than 1 copy of a given edition is in the library at any one time). In event of extreme threat to the collection, itself, one would also want mirrors of the library distributed around the world.

    When you look for sites that distribute BSD, or the newest flavor of Linux, you get a ton of sites based throughout the world. Where can I get a copy of "Origin of Species"?

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