Tuesday, April 25, 2017

GBooks, 15 years on

Three perspectives:

  • How Google Book Search Got Lost
    Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.

    But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.


    But Google took away a lesson that helped it immeasurably as it grew and gained power: Engineering is great, but it’s not the answer to all problems. Sometimes you have to play politics, too — consult stakeholders, line up allies, compromise with rivals. As a result, Google assembled a crew of lobbyists and lawyers and approached other similar challenges — like navigating YouTube’s rights maze — with greater care and better results.

  • Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria
    What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”


    Amazon, for its part, worried that the settlement allowed Google to set up a bookstore that no one else could. Anyone else who wanted to sell out-of-print books, they argued, would have to clear rights on a book-by-book basis, which was as good as impossible, whereas the class action agreement gave Google a license to all of the books at once.

    This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle.


    It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

  • Why Google Books Deserves Better Than These Obituaries
    Unfortunately, the copyright case over Google Books morphed into something larger. It became a vehicle for anxieties over how the digital era has undermined authors on a financial and cultural level. Those concerns are legitimate, but scapegoating Google Books for these fears was misguided.

    Meanwhile, groups like the Authors Guild continue to celebrate the collapse of the settlement even though no other options have emerged to replicate its potential benefits. Those benefits would have included a new market for digital copies of old books, and a solution to the problem of "orphan works"—books whose authors cannot be located that are out-of-print but still under copyright protection. Instead, there is stasis.


    But if Google is to dispel the recent mutterings about the project's decline, it must do more to raise the profile of Google Books, and offer some assurances about how it will ensure the collection—which, recall, is nothing less than the history of human knowledge—will survive. Ideally, the company should create a trust or foundation to manage it so as to ensure it endures no matter what corporate changes come at Google.

    Meanwhile, it's time for Google Books opponents to acknowledge the astonishing thing Google has built. Critics like the former head of Harvard libraries, Robert Darnton, have long suggested some university or public consortium can replicate the project. But today it's clearer than ever this is just a pipeline, and no one will muster the money, energy, and technology to do what Google did also over again.

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