Robin Camille Davis
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Google Books & the future of reading

January 25, 2010
Tags: books, internet, library

Google Books already has loads of public domain books online, and they're working to get other out-of-print and currently in-print books up, too. Last November, Google settled a lawsuit filed by the Authors Guild and others, and the company began to work "closely with these industry partners to bring even more of the world's books online". (More here from Google.) The lawsuit focused mainly on author revenue, I believe, but there's currently a ton of controversy over the implications of letting a company like Google take control of the world's largest digitized library. The amended settlement will be finalized on February 18 of this year.

Author Nick Harkaway has posted a Google Book 10-second Primer on his blog. It sums things up quite nicely. Here're a few snippets:

Access: vast library of rare and out-of-print books made available (initially only in US)
New Readers: books – and hence authors – get new readers.
Preservation: orphan works, which otherwise might actually be lost, are returned to circulation.
Revenue: authors and publishers make money on titles which otherwise might be essentially defunct.

Monopoly: Google and only Google get use of orphan works (new settlement attempt to deal with this still requires congressional intervention – if congressional approval for reworking copyright easy to get, why not do it in the first place?). Effective monopoly on written culture around world for last hundred years. Not a public service, not orphan works being moved to public domain: this is one company establishing probably uncatchable lead over any competition. Consider possible downside: new management decide to gouge consumer. Imagine biggest reference library in the world, w. unique titles, in hands of your least favourite corporate baron. See the problem?

According to the Open Book Alliance, which is a group of companies (including Yahoo and Amazon, of course) championing an open and competitive digitization of the world's library, here are some important, pertinent dates:

January 28, 2010 Deadline for authors to opt out of the settlement
January 28, 2010 Deadline to file objections and/or amicus briefs
February 4, 2010 Deadline to file notice of intent to appear at Fairness Hearing
February 4, 2010 Dept. of Justice response
February 11, 2010 Plaintiffs move for final approval
February 18, 2010 Final Fairness Hearing
March 31, 2011 Deadline to claim Books and Inserts


I'm all for the digitization of all the world's books, too, but I have come to fear Google, to be honest. It already controls too much of my internet experience. The power this young company wields is awesome, in the original sense of the word. They're the only ones who have the tools and money to digitize everything, but I'm not so sure they should, at least not yet. The purpose behind Google Books is a weird combination of public service, which they tout no end, and extraordinary money-making scheme, a topic on which they are a bit quieter.

On the other hand, I've already used a bunch of digitized books on Google for school projects, and I know I wouldn't have had access to them otherwise. And obviously, no codex has a good search function, does it? How many times have I given up on finding a passage in a book that I only remembered "snippets" of?

Well, we'll see what happens next month. This will be a very interesting year for the publishing industry. The Google Books finalized settlement, the e-reader phenomenon, the rumored Apple Tablet which might be revealed this week... The experience of reading a book is changing so radically!! What will reading be like in 10, 50, 100 years? I don't know, but I'm excited to find out. What do you think about all this, hmm?