Does Google Books have one called “Goliath vs. Goliaths”?

Here’s the prologue: Google scans books, builds online library. It’s not a new concept; other book-scanning projects exist. But Google’s proclaimed mission, after all, is to “organize the world’s information.” Having been quite successful at doing so online, it turned to print.

The plot’s first major twist happened in 2005, when authors and publishers filed a class-action lawsuit, accusing the Silicon Valley Goliath of violating copyrights. The suit was settled in October 2008. Among other things, the deal allows Google to create a Book Rights Registry that enables authors and publishers to be compensated for their work. Antitrust concerns ensue. (See Feds checking out Google Books deal.)

Now, seven years after Google officially launched its books project and just before a September deadline for submitting comments about the settlement, other characters both big and small have thrown what could be called major conflict into the story. The other Goliaths are the companies that compete with Google in other arenas: Yahoo, Microsoft and Amazon. They’ve formed Open Book Alliance, a coalition that also includes a couple of library associations, Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer Gary Reback and Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit that has its own digital library.

This current chapter could be titled, “Now why didn’t we think of that?” Yahoo and Microsoft especially might have been capable of undergoing such a project, had they been so inclined. Now they smell a brewing monopoly, see the earning potential, and are peeved. Rich, isn’t it — Microsoft getting indignant about monopoly. Nevertheless, it seems a legitimate concern. Because Google is getting a head start on what could be the world’s most comprehensive online library, and has received the cooperation of not only other libraries but also some copyright holders, it’s not inconceivable to think it could rule the space. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, reportedly told the BBC: “If this deal goes ahead, they’re making a real shot at being ‘the’ library and the only library.”

A Google spokesman’s response to all the fuss, according to the Wall Street Journal: “The Google Books settlement is injecting more competition into the digital books space, so it’s understandable why our competitors might fight hard to prevent more competition.” Ah, the things spokespeople must say with a straight face. This especially must have gotten under Amazon’s skin. But hey, Amazon knows a thing or two about dominance, too.

Set aside the argument that a vast online library — or several — would benefit readers everywhere. (Here’s another twist: Who should be in charge of the public good in this instance?) Take out all the other players in this current drama, and in the end this is really a story about a few giants duking it out, feigning concern about copyrights. Google has invested a lot into its books project. It won’t be backing down so easily. Much litigation looms. On this and so many levels, perhaps the next epic should be titled “Is Google the new Microsoft?”


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  • Steve Goodman

    A cute little tautology: “Take out all the other players … and in the end this is really a story about a few giants duking it out…” Of course, that’s what the story is, if you take out all the other players — i.e., everyone who is not one of the “few giants”. Nevertheless, the “other players” have legitimate concerns about copyright, cost, and access.

  • Right on track, someone needed to step up and begin the Digitization and Indexing of the Mass Paper Book Digital Library, and who better?

    Common sense dictates the need and with “HyperTEXT” Google Indexing of the digital content will short cut the ability to “Stich Together” a Research Paper of the combined and annotated content. Then the NetTablet will be your personal Digital Library…

    The iPhone, competitors, NetTablets, NetBooks, LapTops, DeskTops, HDTV, Satellite, etc. personal eLearning System.

    ahh the future is clear, what you read, and how you find it, and you… 1984 is now.

  • craig

    Google has already been the ‘new Microsoft’ for the last 5 years. It just wasn’t obvious to most people.

  • Tassia

    I want access to out of print orphan works, especially those in ‘lock-down’ in academic libraries that aren’t available on the used book market. Who else is going to do that?

    Google Books books has done an exemplary job in giving us back access to thousands of books that are now in the public domain. Microsoft started on a much smaller scale and then quit, and even the French National Library is realizing just what a task all that scanning is. The Gutenberg Project is wonderful, but it’s voluntary and done on a small scale.

    I do fault Google Books’s apparent habit (I don’t know if it’s official policy or not) of locking out public domain works if they have been reprinted. My hope has been that this settlement will stop that practice.

    The greatest need, imo, is for all the books that are virtually inaccessible by reason if small print runs many years ago but that are not yet in the public domain, books that are stashed away in storage facilities of academic libraries where the public has no access to them. (The only exception is if you live near one and are allowed to request the book as a ‘friend’ or alumni.)

    The University of Michigan has started a POD program of many of their books, which I applaud, even if the prices are high. (Note that, as far as I know, these are books that were scanned by Google.)

    This settlement is far from perfect, but it fills a need that no one else has stepped up to fill. My hope is that compromises can be reached that will allow the public access to these long inaccessible books.

    As the author of six published books, I understand the issues from both reader and author perspectives, but I also know that most writers write for an audience. This settlement will give a new audience for books unread for far too long.

  • John

    I disagree Craig, people still believe in the “make no evil” motto of the early days of google.

  • Matt

    When did Google buy GMSV? I must have missed the press release.

  • This is far more than a battle of titans; it is about the future of access to books. At the Internet Archive, we want to work with others to develop innovative ways of providing readers with the literature of the 20th Century and beyond. Having a court grant Google an exclusive monopoly over a comprehensive collection of in copyright literature is not the right way to encourage innovation, or to establish a more open and competitive marketplace for access to digital books. If the opportunity for books to reinvent themselves in the 21st Century is preserved, I think we will see an unimagined wealth of new ways of presenting and interlinking the rich information and entertainment contained in literature. The capacity to envision the future would then be available to everyone, not just Google.

  • kris

    Is the author aware that Microsoft actually DID have a project just like Google’s called Live Search? Please do your homework….

  • dermbuilder

    Perhaps most people don’t think of Google as a monopoly because they don’t purchase overpriced products from Google. To the average consumer Google is free of cost, just like broadcast TV.

  • Perry

    I wish Google was the old microsoft too! Google has acquired its market share by being the best. Microsoft acquired its share by strongarming computer manufacturers. Unfortunately few people realize there are alternatives, and even fewer are willing to go through the hoops to break their chains.
    I say that Google’s “monopoly” is just that they’re the best, and all the other competitors are third or fourth rate, and it would appear that there’s only one competitor.

  • john blade

    Google is the new conglomerate it will do the same with its online books engine as it will with its search engine. It will use advertising to rape the library of its place and books will suffer as a result as the more popular genres will be pushed up there scale listings and lesser known authors will have to pay to get up this list. Thus the bigger publishers will have the most best sellers and smaller ones will be swallowed up by google or the bigger publishers. Marketing and advertising revenue will be focused on these so called best sellers while the standard of modern literature will lower.

  • Levi Sumagaysay

    Kris: I was remiss in not mentioning Microsoft’s failed attempt at amassing such an archive. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Peter: Of course this is more than a battle of the titans. You miss the point of my post — I was criticizing the Goliaths.

  • Matt

    Amen, Peter Brantley!