Someone comes along and says, “I’ll fund the publication of the largest respository of human knowledge ever, make it available, and searchable, online. On top of this we’ll put $125 million into an independent registry, so that other deals can be done. Authors, readers and publishers will all gain”. Sounds too good to be true. Well that’s exactly what Google are doing, albeit, with a meander through the courts in the US and Europe. They’ve already passed the 10 million book mark in over 100 languages (aiming for over 32 million), with authors and publishers receiving 70% of the revenues.
Google want to play global Bernardo’s to the ‘orphan’ works, that are locked up in difficult to reach libraries. They took the risk, invested the money, digitised the books, even when unsure of the legal outcomes. Compare this to Microsoft, one of the main critics of the project, who abandoned their scanning project Live Search Books in 2008. Why? Cost and legal worries.
Readers have most to gain, as libraries have proven, inadvertently, to be the enemies of knowledge and progress. The great libraries have locked away knowledge in inaccessible vaults, with over 90% of books, tens of millions of them, out of copyright and even when in copyright, out of print. What’s more, books are going out of print faster than in the past, due to the business practices of publishers. All of this leads to books being less, rather than more, available. The library system never got round to doing it for themselves, so why blame Google when they want to realise such a brilliant idea.
Authors also have lots to gain by having their books republished. Most of the books under the settlement are out of print, namely the majority of books that exist, books before Jan 5 2009, as books go out of print faster. Inter-library loans are expensive, slow down research and the researcher can’t really gauge its worth prior to ordering. Paper production is expensive, polluting and contributes to global warming and books disintegrate, are expensive to store and are non-searchable.
Encyclopedia Britannica was created by a private publisher in 1768 and has continued to be published by private companies for nearly 250 years. In fact, the vast majority of books have and continue to be published by private companies. Google’s effort is simply the market working efficiently to satisfy demand by moving beyond the physical storage and distribution of paper books. They stepped up to the electronic publishing plate with a bold initiative, in line with their stated business aim. There is now way that the public sector would or could have achieved this goal, as it would have been mired in ‘not invented here’ jealousies and weak management.
Guess who’s against? What a surprise; Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo (all part of the oddly named Open Book Alliance), the Author’s union and some reactionary librarians, who would dearly love books to be imprisoned for all time in the vaults of their paper palaces. In any case. the deal is not exclusive as the Book Rights Registry will be free to do other deals with the existing 25,000 publishers and others. Even under this deal
While the fight between interested parties rumbles on, the main argument seems to be suppressed, that there is a huge social good at stake here. Access to knowledge which is, at present, inaccessible, is a good thing, especially for those with disabilities or distant from one of the few major libraries. Then there’s the debate around the searchability and suitability of what’s being called ‘The Last Library’, making it truly useful in advancing knowledge and research.