Siva Vaidhyanathan is a frequent commentator on the Google Books Settlement, and my impression has been that he’s generally on the “anti-Google” side. In a long interview by Andrew Albanese in Publishers Weekly, however, Vaidhyanathan presents a more nuanced view. He continues to be unfavorable to the Settlement, and to the part played by libraries in scanning their books for Google. But he also acknowledges the failure of public institutions, especially libraries, in taking the initiative to digitize the world’s books. The interview is full of interesting insights on a wide range of Google-related subjects. Here are some excerpts on Google Books (boldface added):

The Google Books plan is a perfect example of public failure. The great national, public, and university libraries of the world never garnered the funds or the political will and vision needed to create a universal, digital delivery service like Google envisions. Public institutions failed to see and thus satisfy a desire—perhaps a need—for such a service. Google stepped in and declared that it could offer something close to universal access for no cost to the public. The catch, of course, was that it would have to be done on Google’s terms.

Here Vaidhyanathan’s mixed sentiments about Google and the Settlement start to show — He says that if Google had proceeded in its legal battle as he would have preferred, the legality of Search might have been undermined — Which apparently would be OK with him — Even though he says earlier in the interview that he “loves Google” and relies heavily on its Web Search, so acknowledging that he’s like the rest of us, caught on the horns of the Google good-evil dilemma:

[On Google's Fair Use defense in the Books Settlement] Say, Google had decided to fight in court, rather than settle. And say it won before the Supreme Court. Congress was never going to let them just win. Congress would have listened to the major content providers, and it would have intervened in a way that would have restricted fair use. That in turn could have undermined some fundamental practices of the Web, like search. …  But with books, Google reached from the digital world into the analogue world and said to publishers, “You now need to operate by the rules of the Web.”  … As a policy argument, there is something to be said for running copyright the way Google wants to run it. If we were testifying before Congress about such a change, I would be right up there with Google. But as it stands, that’s not what Congress has said, and that’s not what the courts have said.

And here, he seems to be acknowledging that if Google had followed the conventional legal procedures that other companies have to do, there’s a pretty good chance that the scanning project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground yet:

[On the Settlement as a corporate end run around the legislative process] Google figures that if it creates good products and they get popular, the courts and Congress will be less likely to undo them. But that is an arrogant, audacious perspective on the legal and legislative system, and it’s fundamentally antidemocratic. Google should have to do things the old-fashioned way: hire lobbyists to bribe legislators to get their agenda passed [laughs]. Seriously, though, that’s what every other company has to do. And as sick as it sounds, that’s the way the game is played. If Congress thinks it is a bad idea to permit a digital library like this, then we fight harder to convince them why it is a good idea, and we make those arguments in public.

In concluding the interview, Vaidhyanathan returns to the high road, calling for the people of the world to finally take up their responsibility and create the universal digital library:

[On the argument that libraries would never have been able to do the project that Google is doing] If we, the people of the world, the librarians of the world, the scholars of the world, the publishers of the world, decide that we should have a universal digital library, then let’s write a plan, change the laws, raise money, and do it right. If we’re going to create this with public resources, let’s do it in the public interest, not corporate interest. There’s nothing wrong with Google pursuing a books project, of course, and, yes, there are benefits. But we have to understand that what Google has created is first and foremost for Google.

See the complete interview for additional interesting insights: Sergey Brin and Google as the mind of God; the “brilliant story” of Google Search; and why publishers will like Google eBooks more than Amazon.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

0 thoughts on “Google Books – “A Perfect Example of Public Failure”

  1. Siva Vaidhyanathan tweeted this on Feb 3:

    sivavaid‎ @ericrumsey Thanks for that blog post. Wish I could comment. Why would you think I would want search to become illegal? Just the opposite!

  2. Siva Vaidhyanathan – Aren’t you saying that if Google had decided to fight the Google Books battle in court (which you think they should have done) rather than pursue the Settlement the legality of Search might have been put in question?

    I’m sorry about the difficulty of getting comments on this blog. We’re having trouble controlling spam, so I’ve turned off comments for most posts. But I’ll open them up for a a week or so for this post so you or others can comment.

    Thanks for the tweet.

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