Last week New York Times reporter David Carr paid a visit to the GooglePlex, to learn more about Google Book Search. His article on this got little attention, maybe because the title and lead paragraphs didn’t communicate that the subject was, in fact, Google Book Search and the Settlement. So I’m excerpting it here:
Years after cracking the very code of the Web to lucrative ends, Google may be in the midst of trying to conjure the most complicated algorithm yet: to wit, can goodness … scale along with the enterprise? Among other adventures, Google’s motives were called into question after it scanned in millions of books without permission, prompting the Authors Guild and publishers to file a class-action suit. The proposed $125 million settlement will lead to a book registry financed by Google and a huge online archive of mostly obscure books, searched and served up by Google. So is that a big win for a culture that increasingly reads on screen — or a land grab of America’s most precious intellectual property?
[Google] was happy to accommodate my visit [last Tuesday] because the founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, along with Mr. Schmidt, have come to believe that part of their job is explaining themselves. … Google is, broadly, the Wal-Mart of the Internet, a huge force that can set terms and price — in this case free — except Google is not selling hammers and CDs, it is operating at the vanguard of intellectual property.
The Justice Department and a number of state attorneys general, have taken an acute interest in the proposed book settlement that Google negotiated over its right to scan millions of books, many of them out of print. Revenue will be split with any known holders of the copyright, but it is the company’s dominion over so-called orphan works that has intellectual property rights advocates livid.
“It’s disgusting,” said Peter Brantley, director of access for the Internet Archive, which has been scanning books as well. “We all share the general goal of getting more books online, but the class-action settlement gives them a release of any claims of infringement in using those works. For them to say that is not a barrier to entry for other people who might scan in those works is a crock.”
The scanned book project is certainly consistent with the company’s mission, which is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” … “What I think is great about books is that people just don’t go to libraries that much, but they are in front of the computer all day,” Mr. Schmidt said. “And now they have access. If you are sitting and trying to finish a term paper at 2 in the morning, Google Books saved your rear end. That is a really oh-my-God kind of change.”
The government has not yet made this argument — filings are due in the case in September — but others have pointed out that Google has something of a monopoly because the company went ahead and scanned seven million books without permission. “To be very precise, we did not require permission to make those copies,” Mr. Schmidt said, suggesting that by scanning and making just a portion of those works available, the company was well within the provisions of fair use.
“People are bringing old narratives to this discussion rather than understanding the unique aspects of the Internet,” he added. “We are one click away from losing you as a customer, so it is very difficult for us to lock you in as a customer in a way that traditional companies have.”
In a later meeting, Mr. Brin waved his hand when it was suggested that the company’s decision to scan books and then reach a settlement had created a barrier to entry for others. (Google also has a separate commercial initiative to work with publishers to sell more current works.) “I didn’t see anyone lining up to scan books when we did it, or even now,” Mr. Brin said. “Some of them are motivated by near-term business disputes, and they don’t see this as an achievement for humanity.”
As with most matters involving Google, it is less about the specific activity than the scope of it. A company with Google’s wherewithal and ambition may have the ability to eventually seem like the only choice in all manner of endeavors.
When I told Mr. Schmidt I was worried about Google’s dominant presence in my digital life, he said: “It’s a legitimate concern. But the question is, how are we doing? Are our products working for you?” Why, yes they are. And if a book is ever written about all this, Google will probably be able to serve that up as well.