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January 23, 2009

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Utopian Jeremiad

The great historian and librarian Robert Darnton weighs the consequences of the Google Books settlement:

Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize books several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons (formerly the Open Content Alliance) and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. 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. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.

Google’s record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges, especially the price of the institutional subscription licenses. The settlement leaves Google free to negotiate deals with each of its clients, although it announces two guiding principles: “(1) the realization of revenue at market rates for each Book and license on behalf of the Rightsholders and (2) the realization of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education.”

What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high. Google may choose to be generous in it pricing, and I have reason to hope it may do so; but it could also employ a strategy comparable to the one that proved to be so effective in pushing up the price of scholarly journals: first, entice subscribers with low initial rates, and then, once they are hooked, ratchet up the rates as high as the traffic will bear.

This is Darnton’s bleaker vision; at other points, he suggests that digitization may still yet create a new Enlightenment. On balance, it looks like there are winners, losers, missed opportunities, and new possibilities, but mostly a lot of work still to be done.

Posted January 23, 2009 at 1:08 | Comments (15) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'


Such a long article; it's been hanging out in a tab for a couple days now, until I feel like reading it. I have to wonder whether I'd be more willing if it was printed out...

"Hanging out in a tab" -- great formulation. We all have those lingering links... lurking way to the left in the scrolling Firefox tab-bar...

This is a great link, and while you know that this is an issue close to my heart, I don't know that I have anything to add. Mickey Mouse is the enemy, but more than that, the enemy is the fact that the public believes that corporations should have perpetual ownership of intellectual property.

Free literature! Free the mouse!

My lingering tabs usually stick around in the top right corner of my NetNewsWire window. Right now, I've got an article by William Randolph Hearst, a NYT story about rising university tuition, and Nick Carr's riff on the Google+Wikipedia monopoly. (Not the new one. The one from 2006. Dude's got some lingering tabs of his own.)

We clearly need our own "From the Feuilletons" that can distill these long brainy magazine articles into something web-tasty. Although, actually, I think those are called "blogs."

One of the things I like about Darnton's article is this sense that it isn't about Google being an evil monopolizing corporation, but that it's an opportunity that was missed by the government or open/nonprofit organizations.

In a lot of ways, the triumph of Wikipedia poses the opposite problem: so many corporations for so long bungled the idea of an internet encyclopedia that the Wikipedians were able to move right in.

Not something that would distill them - I just read this, and this kind of article would lose a lot by getting distilled, since most of the point of it is to comprehensively summarize Big Thoughts for people who haven't been following the story closely so far.

Yes, yes -- I'm kidding. This is like that phone-watch moment in reverse!

Hey Obama, stimulate us some digital competition, why doncha:

Though, I realize, this project would never leave the public domain. Still a good first step. Write your congressperson.

Tim: All right! We're even now.

In addition to government, non-profit, and corporate efforts, I wonder whether crowd-sourcing will have an impact here too. Wired recently ran a story about a book scanner aimed at the consumer market.

This thing is pricey and not very fast, but could this be the beginning of the mp3/Napster era for printed books? If these scanners become popular enough, and the digitized books start making the file sharing rounds, could that serve to keep Google and company honest with the pricing of their commercial operations?

On the Napster moment for books:

Google Books is the first place I look for digital access to books.

The second place is Scribd.

Right, but the question is whether it's feasible for consumer-owned scanners to provide, over say the next five years, a growing source for free copies of books that are not out of copyright (particularly those that are out of print). Obviously the numbers don't compare to the number of people who own CD rippers, but I still think this could provide some consumer-friendly pressure on commercial digital providers like Google, which might lead to more subscription-based, open access services, rather than DRM single-copy BS.

My point is -- people are doing this. It's not easy to do, but it is already getting done. The more demo-auto-matic you can make it, that process will accelerate.

Right, but the question is whether it's being done outside of Google, especially for books still in copyright and out of print. Is that what you meant by referring to Scribd? I thought that was for publishing original content?

You thought.

Intriguing. Or at least... mysterious ;b.

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