Leggo my ego.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 17 2005 6:59 AM

Leggo My Ego

Google Print and the other culture war.

Did you know you can search television? That you can type in "yada yada yada," and find the exact frames where George Costanza's girlfriend Marcy said it first? Weird as it may seem, you can do it with one of Google's little-known products, "Google Video." It's part of Google's not-quite-secret master plan—to make as much of the "offline world" searchable online as humanly possible.

Google is the company that wants to be loved, and it is invariably shocked when people object to what they are doing. That, recently, has amounted to a lot of shock. Earlier this month, the New York-based Author's Guild filed charges against Google, calling the company both "brazen" and a "massive copyright infringer." The lawsuit capped a year in which Google has been called "arrogant," "greedy," "stretched," and even, by the French, "un ogre."

Advertisement

Tough going for a company whose motto is "Don't be evil."

What's going on? Google has become the new ground zero for the "other" culture war. Not the one between Ralph Reed and Timothy Leary, but the war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood; California's cultural civil war. At stake are two different visions of what might best promote authorship in this country. One side trumpets the culture of authorial exposure, the other urges the culture of authorial control. The relevant questions, respectively, are: Do we think the law should help authors maximize their control over their work? Or are authors best served by exposure—making it easier to find their work? Authors and their advocates have long favored maximal control—but we undergoing a sea-change in our understanding of the author's interests in both exposure and control.  Unlike, perhaps, the other culture war, this war has real win-win potential, and I hope that years from now we will be shocked to remember that Google's offline searches were once considered controversial.

What I've called the "exposure culture" reflects the philosophy of the Web, in which getting noticed is everything. Web authors link to each other, quote liberally, and sometimes annotate entire articles. E-mailing links to favorite articles and jokes has become as much a part of American work culture as the water cooler. The big sin in exposure culture is not copying, but instead, failure to properly attribute authorship. And at the center of this exposure culture is the almighty search engine. If your site is easy to find on Google, you don't sue—you celebrate.

It is this dramatic shift—to a culture of exposure—that Google and others want to export to the worlds of books, video, and other large stores of offline information. Consider Google's widely misunderstood "print" product, which is at the heart of the litigation with the Author's Guild. Designed to be similar to Google's Web search, Google Print searches the full text of Google's library of scanned books. (This page shows the results of a search for "Harriet Miers.")

There's a key difference between Google "Print" and the regular Google "Web." On the Web search, if you find something, you can then just click through to the Web page. But using Google Print is different—you only get the results. To get the "full" result, you actually have to buy the book. This is a common misunderstanding about Google Print—it is a way to search books, not a way to get books for free. It is not, in short, Napster for books.

Where does Google get the books in its search? Most, so far, are sent in by publishers who want to be noticed. But Google last year also began slowly adding to its database scans of some of the largest university libraries in the world (here is an example). That's the main controversy and also the main attraction. There is a lot of really great and valuable stuff in college libraries, but it is hard and time-consuming to find. Professors are not usually excitable creatures, but I have personally heard squeals at the prospect of full-text searching our libraries. That book searches are great for users and researchers is a no-brainer.

The big question is whether they are good for authors. Many of my friends who are authors are, to be sure, initially very suspicious. "It's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied" says Nick Taylor, president of the Author's Guild. Taylor isn't suggesting that book search engines are necessarily bad for authors. His objection is that Google Print has deprived authors of their control—their right to decide whether to be in a book search in the first place. The author knows best, the argument goes, and she should be the one who makes all the decisions. If exposure serves the authors' interest, she can agree to be on Google—otherwise, forget it.

The idea that there is no tradeoff between authorial control and exposure is attractive. But it is also wrong. Individually, more control may always seem appealing—who wouldn't want more control? But collectively, it can be a disaster. Consider what it would mean, by analogy, if map-makers needed the permission of landowners to create maps. As a property owner, your point would be clear: How can you put my property on your map without my permission? Map-makers, we might say, are clearly exploiting property owners, for profit, when they publish an atlas. And as an individual property owner, you might want more control over how your property appears on a map, and whether it appears at all, as well as the right to demand payment.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.