Google likes and respects books. It also likes and respects publishers and copyright laws. Today, it is both partner and participant with individuals and institutions to create new opportunities for readers, writers and publishers around the world.
The challenge is that most of the information in the world is not yet online, which makes it impossible to find unless you know exactly what to look for and where. In this process, Google accepts that what its partners and customers see as opportunities, critics might see as threats.
Take, for example, Google’s new book search service. Millions of out-of-print and out-of-copyright books are gathering dust in libraries everywhere. Google Book Search aims to make these and many other works and the information they contain universally discoverable.
Imagine sitting at a computer, browsing a digital card catalogue that searches the full text of millions of books and directs you to the exact place where you can purchase a title or find it in a library. The catalogue displays basic bibliographical information and a few lines of text; if the owner has explicitly given permission by joining Google’s partner programme, viewers can then look at a number of pages to decide if they want to buy it.
Google is already working with famous libraries such as the Bodleian in Oxford to include their public domain books in the digital search index. Thousands of publishers, such as Cambridge University Press and Blackwell Publishing, have joined the partner programme to stimulate interest in their authors and increase sales. If it is an out-of-copyright book in the public domain, the full text is available to all – for free. Many library books, however, are still in copyright and need protection for the benefit of authors and publishers. That is why the book search service is specifically designed to protect and promote the ability of authors and publishers to sell their books. Google receives no money for referring users of Google Books to online retailers and the majority of revenues from advertising on Google’s publishing programme go to the publishers concerned.
So why has Google Book Search become so controversial? Some critics argue that Google should not be able to scan copyrighted books from libraries, even if only a few lines of text are shown. They believe that indexing their work is a threat to their business and a violation of American law. If their position prevails, you might not be able to record a television show to watch later and online search engines would not be able to let you search the content of web pages without the owner’s explicit permission.
This is not the first time these types of questions have come up. More than 30 years ago, Hollywood’s biggest movie studios complained that the rise of the video cassette recorder meant the end of the movie industry. Indeed, the studios sued VCR manufacturers as copyright violators and went to the US Supreme Court to make their case.
Luckily, for both producers and consumers of information, the studios lost. The VCR and its DVD offspring have become the most profitable distribution channels in film-making history. Unsurprisingly, we believe that Google Book Search is a great opportunity for authors and publishers alike. Indeed, the more successful that writers and publishers become, the more successful we become. How many out-of-print and backlist titles will enjoy renewed sales life thanks to this project? How many authors will gain renown simply because the web has made it so much easier for readers to find them?
We are the first to acknowledge that this story is just beginning – the broader issue is about making content available, whatever its source. Vast amounts of information from space exploration to inquiries into the human genome remain offline, undigitised and undiscovered.
Digitisation of the world’s books will take years. Google is committed to pursue this project as a responsible and respectful partner of the European Commission and national governments, seeking to increase access to information while respecting copyright law.
But the notion that Google’s digitisation project represents a threat to publishers and writers is both unfair and untrue. Publishers should take the lesson of Hollywood’s unanticipated delight over VCR and DVD technology to heart. Their success – and ours – is linked.
The writer is vice-president of European operations for Google