Sunday, May 14, 2006

Scan This Book!

NYT goes big with an overview of Google Book Search, giving the issue a pretty thorough treatment while coming down in Google's favor (article written by Wired's Kevin Kelly, so the bias seems obvious).

After fawning over awesomeness of the project (better than the library of Alexandria) and the technological marvel of the effort (bigger than landing on the moon), the discussion turns to how the Internet effects the way we read. Trolling the web for news and opinion is already infinitely better with the ability to deep link and tag, just imagine the same with books! But no one doubts the benefit of Book Search: the problem is how to make it work under the law.

So how do we characterize Google's "moral imperative to scan" against the interests of publishers? The description of the battle between Google and publishers is neatly summarized:

The argument about sharing revenue is not about the three or four million books that publishers care about and keep in print, because Google is sharing revenues for those books with publishers. (Google says publishers receive the "majority share" of the income from the small ads placed on partner-program pages.) The argument is about the 75 percent of books that have been abandoned by publishers as uneconomical. One curious fact, of course, is that publishers only care about these orphans now because Google has shifted the economic equation; because of Book Search, these dark books may now have some sparks in them, and the publishers don't want this potential revenue stream to slip away from them. They are now busy digging deep into their records to see what part of the darkness they can declare as their own.

The second complaint against Google is more complex. Google argues that it is nearly impossible to track down copyright holders of orphan works, and so, it says, it must scan those books first and only afterward honor any legitimate requests to remove the scan. In this way, Google follows the protocol of the Internet. Google scans all Web pages; if it's on the Web, it's scanned. Web pages, by default, are born copyrighted. Google, therefore, regularly copies billions of copyrighted pages into its index for the public to search. But if you don't want Google to search your Web site, you can stick some code on your home page with a no-searching sign, and Google and every other search engine will stay out. A Web master thus can opt out of search. (Few do.) Google applies the same principle of opting-out to Book Search. It is up to you as an author to notify Google if you don't want the company to scan or search your copyrighted material. This might be a reasonable approach for Google to demand from an author or publisher if Google were the only search company around. But search technology is becoming a commodity, and if it turns out there is any money in it, it is not impossible to imagine a hundred mavericks scanning out-of-print books. Should you as a creator be obliged to find and notify each and every geek who scanned your work, if for some reason you did not want it indexed? What if you miss one?

Stepping back from book search, we can see that the dispute over scanning books is only only battlefront in the war between pre- and post-internet business models:
A new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including individual livelihoods of artists. The contours of the electronic economy are still emerging, but while they do, the wealth derived from the old business model is being spent to try to protect that old model, through legislation and enforcement. Laws based on the mass-produced copy artifact are being taken to the extreme, while desperate measures to outlaw new technologies in the marketplace "for our protection" are introduced in misguided righteousness. (This is to be expected. The fact is, entire industries and the fortunes of those working in them are threatened with demise. Newspapers and magazines, Hollywood, record labels, broadcasters and many hard-working and wonderful creative people in those fields have to change the model of how they earn money. Not all will make it.)
Definitely read the article for yourself. I'm always happy to see articles like this hit the NYT (and any other msm) because it means the issue is reaching a broader audience. Today's debates over the Internet and intellectual property will have a much more profound effect on the future than, say, debates over immigration, yet you wouldn't think so based on what gets covered in the news.
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