It’s taken me a while to figure out the Google Books Case, and I’m still not sure I could accurately and fairly describe the motivations of all parties involved. In the end I’m not even confident there’s a good guy to point to, given that all parties seem eager to claim and exploit rights to other people’s property.
(Is it just me, or is it time to beat back some of these absurd online euphemisms? Currently a complete stranger who’s lying to you about who they are qualifies as a friend, and the idea of stealing other people’s property is redefined as sharing. “Because I am such a good person, I want to share these stolen — uh….I mean, orphaned — jewels with you. In fact, have a whole bag. And some MP3’s.”)
Yesterday, Google and the Justice League of Authors decided to avoid a ritualized gutting in the courts over a proposed mutually-beneficial settlement aimed squarely at exploiting other people’s legal rights. (When I say I’m still not sure I can ‘accurately and fairly describe the motivations of all parties involved,’ this is what I’m talking about.) At the strategic level this is nothing more than legal repositioning. Google and the Author’s Guild are almost certainly still intent on putting a deal together that passes the smell test without actually mitigating their mutual and individual legal objectives.
The one thing I have been able to put my finger on — and here I admit guilt myself — is the idea that Google was ever a benevolent force in all of this. To see what I mean, consider this quote yesterday from BNET (a division of CBS Interactive, neither of which I’d ever heard of before):
Google is still in the driver’s seat to claim Round Two. After all, in the end, no one who thinks about the future of books should wish to derail the search giant’s large-scale scanning effort that has the potential to bring millions of pre-digital books into the 21st Century.
Now, when I read that this morning I could literally feel a foot being applied to the emergency brake in my brain. Because this author expressed something that I’ve been also been feeling, which I suddenly believe is not at all true. In fact, I believe it’s demonstrably wrong.
What I’d been feeling, what this author was expressing, and what Google has been leaning heavily on, is the idea that Google is the only one who can do this Wonderful Thing (TM). Nobody else can do it — no mere mortal — no feeble alliance — no idol.
Two assumptions seem to be driving this faulty (and, from Google’s point of view, extremely useful) premise. First, there’s a sense that we must do this now, as fast as possible, to make up for the fact that we should have done this a long time ago. I mean, if Google came up with this idea, why didn’t we think of it? What’s wrong with us? Don’t we love books and knowledge? Apparently only Google really loves books and knowledge, because they cared enough to come up with this idea while they were trying to figure out how to spend their trillions of dollars in ways that diversified them away from their core business while also grabbing a monopolistic position in a new market. So obviously, we owe them.
Second, there’s the idea that only a great big well-funded company can do anything on this kind of scale. Which, when you think about it, not only sounds a lot like the paternalistic arguments the Soviet Union used to put forward regarding its own existence, but it also flies directly — and I mean smack-dab — in the face of the idea that the internet is perfectly designed for distributed, open-source, for-the-betterment-of-all-mankind large-scale (crowdsourced) projects like this. Which means no matter how much lip service we’re all willing to give the internet as a wonderful place where people can and should come together and accomplish a Wonderful Thing (TM), we really still believe that nothing of substance can get done unless daddy does it. Cue Pravda.
I applaud Google for their initiative, and that includes the money-making aspect of their initiative. That’s the way we do things in America: business is the engine of our civilization. But that doesn’t mean we have to take the first deal (or any deal) being offered. Nor do we have to ascribe some benevolent status to what a large corporation is doing with other people’s intellectual property. What’s good for Google is not necessarily (and probably not ever) inherently good for America, for books, for libraries or for individual authors.
Instead of looking at Google’s effort to scan all available material and then wrapping that idea in some romantic notion of a resurrected Library of Alexandria, we ought to be looking at all of this in another way. First, instead of jumping to the conclusion that Google is doing a wonderful thing that only they can do, we need to remind ourselves that this is going to happen sooner or later, and if later means a better deal for everybody not named Google (or the Author’s Guild) then a little delay is worth it.
Second, given that this is really a question about the public good, and how one company has successfully positioned itself as the agent of the public good, we should pull back and ask if there isn’t a better way to do this on any scale. Are we really looking at a future in which there is a worldwide library system which holds all of the world’s knowledge? What is the correct long-term vision for this sort of thing, and how do we get there?
I’m not against Google. I want the best deal I can get as a citizen, but as long as people think Google is a benevolent dictator (or cosmic superhero) I’m confident we’re not going to get the best deal. I’m also glad the Department of Justice made it clear that the previously-proposed settlement would not past muster in the courts, but I know Google and the Author’s Guild will be back.
Between then and now, the best thing we can all do is remember that caring about the future of books is not synonymous with believing in Google’s book-scanning project. That’s a mistake I was making myself.
— Mark Barrett