Google’s books drive needs a wider debate

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Digital media is the future and two decades from now the book business will look very different.

You can download the latest Dan Brown novel to your Kindle in even less time than it takes to forget the content. You can equally easily obtain an audio recording of Pride and Prejudice or track a reference in The Wealth of Nations. Wherever I am in the world, I can consult any economics article from the 1990s. The prospect of a universal online library is potentially the most exciting development for readers and scholars for generations.

But if you have done any or all of these things, you will also have experienced frustrations. You can get an e-book of Mr Brown or Jane Austen, but books that are neither very old nor very new are harder to find. Bizarrely, you can easily get economic articles so long as they are neither very old nor very new.

On November 13 last year, two leading associations representing US authors and publishers put forward to a New York District Court a revised settlement on the digitisation of books with Google. The revision was the latest twist in a class-action lawsuit filed against Google in 2005 alleging that the search group’s plan to put all the world’s books online ignored authors’ and publishers’ intellectual property rights.

As with anything that uses the US legal system, the issue is likely to drag on for years. The proposed deal is a first step towards a global library, but an extremely small one, whose main effect is to make some out-of-print books more available.

The court case is an unsatisfactory way of deciding an important issue. The principal potential beneficiaries from the rapid extension of digital access – the public and authors struggling to get work published – are not parties to the case. The dispute, and the forum of resolution, is American, but the practical effects will be felt worldwide.

The arbiter is a junior judge, Denny Chin. The underlying legal issue is how copyright should be interpreted in a technological context that the 18th-century framers of the concept could not have imagined. There are many issues to be debated in determining policy for a digital era but the semantics of what constitutes a copy is not one of them.

So the quality of argument falls far short of its significance. The few European contributions proclaim lofty ideals; the French and German submissions are full of windy rhetoric, expressing indignation that the works of Goethe and Voltaire should be copied by pesky Californians. They assert a human right to free access to information although free access to information is exactly what they wish to deny. In practice, since the settlement applies essentially to books in English, it potentially marginalises further the literature of other languages. The British government has nothing to say: the digital Britain of Lord Carter’s report twitters and blogs, goes online to renew its driving licences and watch television, and to engage in high frequency securities trading, but has little use for books.

The principal American contributions are barely disguised expressions of diverse economic interests. Competing software businesses are afraid of Google’s dominance. Publishers fear any departure from their existing business model and so, with less cause, do authors. Established vested interests will win the short-term political battle. But the market will destroy these vested interests in the end, as has happened in music. Digital media is the future and two decades from now the book business will look very different.

What is needed is a public option. The great libraries of the past – from Oxford’s Bodleian Library to Andrew Carnegie’s small town facilities – have made incalculable contributions to scholarship and economic progress. These outcomes were the result of philanthropic and state action, which facilitated private enterprise. Comprehensive digitisation of printed media will cost a few hundred million dollars – large enough to constitute a commercial entry barrier, so the fear of Google is justified – but tiny relative to existing global library budgets, far less the potential economic benefits of wider reading and better scholarship. The debate should move to a larger, more international forum.

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