Some Fear Google’s Power in Digital Books
By NOAM COHEN
IN 2002, Google began to drink the milkshakes of the book world.
Back then, according to the company’s official history, it began a “secret ‘books’ project.” Today, that project is known as Google Book Search and, aided by a recent class-action settlement, it promises to transform the way information is collected: who controls the most books; who gets access to those books; how access will be sold and attained. There will be blood, in other words.
Like the oil barons in the late 19th century, Google is thirsty for a vital raw material — digital content. As Daniel J. Clancy, the engineering director for Google Book Search, put it, “our core business is about search and discovery, and search and discovery improves with more content.”
He can even sound like a prospector when he says Google began its effort to scan millions of books “because there is a ridiculous amount of information out there,” he said, later adding, “and we didn’t see anyone else doing it.”
But there is a crucial difference. Unlike Daniel Plainview, the antihero of “There Will Be Blood,” played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who cackles when describing how his rigs can suck the oil underneath other peoples’ property — drink their milkshakes, if you will — when Google copies a book the original remains.
Instead, the “property” being taken is represented by copyrights and other kinds of ownership. There will be lawsuits.
In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton, the head of the Harvard library system, writes about the Google class-action agreement with the passion of a Progressive Era muckraker.
“Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly — a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information,” Mr. Darnton writes. “Google has no serious competitors.”
He adds, “Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers.”
Google is certainly solidifying a dominant position in the world of books by digitizing the great collections of the world. It relies on a basic mathematical principle: no matter how many volumes Harvard or Oxford may have, each can’t have more than Oxford plus Harvard plus Michigan, and so on.
The class-action settlement (which a judge must still approve), Mr. Darnton writes, “will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.”
As long as Google has a set of millions of books that it uniquely can offer to the public, he argues, it has a monopoly it can exploit. You want that 1953 treatise on German state planning? You’ll have to pay. Or, more seriously, your library wants unfettered access to these millions of books? You’ll have to subscribe.
While Harvard has allowed Google to digitize its public domain holdings, it has thus far not agreed to the settlement. “Contrary to many reports, Harvard has not rejected the settlement,” Mr. Darnton wrote in an e-mail message, in which he said his essay was “not meant as an attack on Google.” “It is studying the situation as the proposed accord makes its way through the court.”
To professors who track the fast-changing nature of content on the Internet, not to mention Google officials, the idea of Google as a robber baron is fanciful. Google has no interest in controlling content, Mr. Clancy said, and in the few cases where it does create its own content — maps or financial information, for instance — it tries to make it available free.
Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia and a free-culture advocate, puts it this way: if the fight over digitization of books is like horse-and-buggy makers against car manufacturers, Google wants to be the road.
To those who write about the significance of Google Book Search — and a bit of a cottage industry has formed online in a few months — it is not Google’s role as the owner of content that preoccupies them. Rather it is the digitization itself: the centralization — and homogenization — of information.
To Thomas Augst, an English professor at New York University who has studied the history of libraries, including those in the past that were run as businesses, what is significant is that the digitization of books is ending the distinction between circulating libraries, meant for public readers, and research libraries, meant for scholars. It’s not as if anyone from the public can walk into the Harvard library.
“A positive way to look at what Google is doing,” he said, “is that it is advancing the circulating of books and leveling these distinctions.”
In a final twist, however, the digital-rights class-action agreement has the potential to make physical libraries newly relevant. Each public library will have one computer with complete access to Google Book Search, a service that normally would come as part of a paid subscription.
One of Mr. Darnton’s concerns is that a single computer may not be enough to meet public demand. But Mr. Augst already can see a great benefit.
Google is “creating a new reason to go to public libraries, which I think is fantastic,” he said. “Public libraries have a communal function, a symbolic function that can only happen if people are there.”