I originally wrote this post after publication of the NY Times editorial by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, noted below. After some consideration, however, I decided to withhold judgment and wait for the revised Google Book Settlement that was eventually mandated by the federal courts. The revised settlement was made public late Friday.
Throughout the history of civilization, at any one time, there has always been a large-scale dynamic in play, a momentous prize at stake, and one competitor who emerged victorious. The measure of such victories, however, is not in the accomplishment, but in what the victors do with their fragile, momentary claim to power. Feed yourself and you go in the junk bucket of tribal butchers, charismatic frauds and political plunderers that have been the inevitable, predictable rule. Feed the world and you transcend the basest of all human traits.
On Friday, October 8, 2009, an editorial written by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, appeared in the New York Times. Titled, A Library to Last Forever, the editorial made the case for Google’s proposed settlement with the Authors Guild over Google’s attempts to exploit content they do not own. (It is not at all clear that the Authors Guild has standing to act on behalf of copyright holders in crafting such a settlement.)
After explaining why it is important to digitize books (so everyone can have access; so they won’t get lost in a flood), Brin states Google’s selfless case:
Because books are such an important part of the world’s collective knowledge and cultural heritage, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, first proposed that we digitize all books a decade ago, when we were a fledgling startup. At the time, it was viewed as so ambitious and challenging a project that we were unable to attract anyone to work on it. But five years later, in 2004, Google Books (then called Google Print) was born, allowing users to search hundreds of thousands of books. Today, they number over 10 million and counting.
The next year we were sued by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over the project. While we have had disagreements, we have a common goal — to unlock the wisdom held in the enormous number of out-of-print books, while fairly compensating the rights holders.
It is important to note what is being omitted here. Nowhere does Brin acknowledge what changed between 1999 and 2004: that Google found itself with such massive cash-on-hand that it was able to fund the entire book-scanning project itself. It did not need to “attract anyone” any more, so Google simply plowed ahead — without asking for permission from relevant rights holders. Too, there is no admission or acknowledgment of a profit motive in Brin’s statements, yet Google clearly intends to profit from this enterprise. Despite protestations that Google is “unlocking wisdom”, Google is in fact stockpiling other people’s intellectual property for its own economic benefit.
The remainder of Brin’s editorial defends the originally-proposed settlement against various complaints, then Brin closes by reminding the reader that floods aren’t the only threat:
The famous library at Alexandria burned three times, in 48 B.C., A.D. 273 and A.D. 640, as did the Library of Congress, where a fire in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of the collection.
I hope such destruction never happens again, but history would suggest otherwise. More important, even if our cultural heritage stays intact in the world’s foremost libraries, it is effectively lost if no one can access it easily. Many companies, libraries and organizations will play a role in saving and making available the works of the 20th century. Together, authors, publishers and Google are taking just one step toward this goal, but it’s an important step. Let’s not miss this opportunity.
To which I say: Yes, let’s not miss this opportunity! Sergey Brin (and Larry Page, if he has the courage of his own convictions) should step down from Google, liberate this laudable cause from the fiduciary requirement of maximizing shareholder value, dedicate billions of dollars of personal wealth to the cause, and in so doing establish a truly free, open-source, world-wide library impervious to floods and all but the greatest apocalyptic fires.
In order to make the case to Mr. Brin for this radical approach to success, I would point out in the decade prior to his own rise to preeminence the big winner was Bill Gates. Whatever the game was back then, Microsoft won, dominating the landscape in exactly the same way that Google now dominates. As a result, Bill Gates wasted a decade of his life lying to Congress, destroying competitors through monopolistic practices and generally acting like every other junk-bucket visionary throughout the blood-spattered course of human history. Call it ego, call it loyalty, call it stupidity, Bill Gates and Microsoft embodied it all.
And then one day something happened. Bill Gates woke up, realized he had won, realized he would soon be dead no matter how much money he had, and he decided to try to do something about the messed-up world we live in. The result of that moment of clarity was that Bill Gates stepped down (at least publicly) from his role as head of Microsoft and devoted himself full time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the end — and I really mean in the end, when history is written — this is the only distinction that matters. If you are the typical sort of victor you make the best deal you can for yourself, like the butchers in Africa who kill their own people and strip their country bare, or the banana republics that do the same, or the leaders of China, or those members of Congress, the Pentagon and the White House whose only goal is to enrich themselves in the moment of their pathetic lives. On the other hand, if you are an atypical victor, you recognize your own mortality, your own ludicrous good fortune, and your unparalleled ability to directly and materially improve the lives of others.
To the extent that Mr. Brin might be reluctant to emulate Bill Gates’ example, it’s worth noting that Mr. Gates is hardly a pioneer. In American history the best example of this kind of personal transformation may be Andrew Carnegie, who — after making himself stinking rich by exploiting the people that worked for him — decided to give his money away:
“Maybe with the giving away of his money,” commented biographer Joseph Wall, “he would justify what he had done to get that money.”
Not only did Carnegie give his money away, one of the things he funded was the American library system. But it wasn’t just local communities he changed, it was the country and the world:
In total Carnegie funded some 3,000 libraries, located in 47 US states, and also in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, and Fiji. He also donated £50,000 to help set up the University of Birmingham in 1899.
As VanSlyck (1991) showed, the last years of the 19th century saw acceptance of the idea that free libraries should be available to the American public.
I grew up in a town with a Carnegie Library because of the post-pillaging generosity of Andrew Carnegie. But I also grew up in a country that believes in free access to knowledge and information because of his vision. Before Andrew Carnegie it was not a given that libraries had a right to exist. After Carnegie, the question was settled.
We now stand at the moment when we are going to decide if the entire world will have free and open access to knowledge and information. This will not be someone else’s decision. It will not fall to a committee or an open-source movement. This decision rests in the hands of Sergey Brin, who, unfortunately, still seems mesmerized by the idea that he might put a hotel on Boardwalk.
Give it all away, Sergey! Give the knowledge to everyone. Stop shilling for Google in the transient global marketplace. Stop pretending that what you’re doing is a good thing, and do the actual good thing. Set up a true library, free to everyone the world over. Partner with governments that can pay for it. Bring Microsoft and Amazon and everyone else on board — or force them to decline, and in so doing declare their own duplicitous motives.
This is your moment. This is the only moment you get. You either decide to feed yourself or you feed the world. Then you die.
Pope Brin. Shah Brin. General Brin. Ayatollah Brin. Caesar Brin. King Brin. PM Brin. Don Brin. Field Marshall Brin. Emperor Brin.
Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Epic fail.
— Mark Barrett