Google's tangled quest for a universal online library.

Google's tangled quest for a universal online library.

Google's tangled quest for a universal online library.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
May 6 2009 4:22 PM

Your Search Returned 12 Million Books

Google's goal of a universal online library would be great for humanity. It can still be great for authors and publishers, too.

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For one thing, notes Pamela Samuelson, a law professor at University of California-Berkeley, only authors who register with the BRR will get paid. If I registered, I would get a slice of revenue even if nobody had searched for my book; if the authors of all those out-of-print books about Winston Churchill hadn't bothered to register (or if they're dead and their heirs hadn't known to register)—well, tough. Google and the publishing industry would make a pretty penny regardless.

What's more, there are no provisions in the deal for authors to allow readers to get their books for free. Say the family of Randolph Churchill, son of Winston and author of a now out-of-print 1966 compendium of his father's letters, wanted the book to be made available to anyone who searched for it. (After all, they haven't made money from it in years.) Samuelson notes that the BRR is governed by "copyright maximalists" like the Authors Guild, groups that have expressed reservations about relaxing the access rules for electronic works. There's little chance they'd allow authors to give people a chance to download books freely.


But the most objectionable part of the plan is the prize it grants to Google—as the only company in the world with digital access to most books. Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, and groups like the Open Content Alliance would be shut out of the BRR scheme. Google and the publishing industry would have free rein to raise prices on all the works in their vast catalog.

But we can all agree that the end goal of digitalizing all books and making them available would be good for readers. Beginning in 2006, I spent a year and a half researching my book; Google Books and Google Scholar, the company's academic research engine, were my saviors. Even though I could see only small sections of the books and papers I found through Google, the search engines helped me get a broad look at best titles in the fields I was researching. Google brought books to life—instead of reading through survey texts, I could search for footnotes, which led me to more precise titles, which led to still others and others, in much the same way that we navigate the Web using hyperlinks. Eventually, of course, I had to drag myself to the library to pick up physical copies of the works in question—a step that I considered ridiculous. I would gladly have paid Google and the authors for the right to electronically review the books and papers, but there was no way to do so.

I've long called on the publishing industry to negotiate with Google. Now I'm calling on the publishing industry to negotiate with Google's competitors. Authors and publishers should be forced—either by the court, or through legislation—to grant rival companies like Amazon and Microsoft the same rights that they're giving Google. Not only would this likely satisfy the government's antitrust concerns, it would create a truly vibrant market for books. Google didn't create a great Web search engine because it alone had access to everything published online; it created a great Web search engine because all its rivals had access, too, and Google was forced to think of an entirely new way to approach searching the Web. The story is no different for books: No single company should be given exclusive legal access to the printed word. That would be a disaster for authors. More importantly, it would be a disaster for readers as well.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.