Dan Lawton : Journalist

A New Google Order

The best books … are those that tell you what you know already.

– George Orwell

If you Google the word “Google,” you get 2,650,000,000 results. If you Google “Google, monopoly,” 3,210,000 items are returned. If you Google “Google, Orwellian nightmare, digital apocalypse, corporate intellectual engineering,” the harvest is much more limited; only 1,280 matches appear.

These results, the product of complicated algorithms, exist for one reason: Google allows them to. The moment it decides this information is either irrelevant or unsavory, it can easily be buried deep into the black hole of cyberspace where no one – not even an errant bottom-feeder – can find it.

By: Patrick Finney

By: Patrick Finney

Of course, the folks at Google don’t do this; it’s not their business plan. What they want, at the moment, is to acquire more information, not bury it. But imagine a future in which all information is stored, displayed, filtered and produced by one source: Google. Imagine a future in which print books cease to exist – it’s likely on the horizon – and every piece of literature from Plato’s “The Republic” to your calculus textbook exists in a digital format with one monolithic gatekeeper. Imagine typing in a search query for Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and getting back a list of books about baking turkeys; the novel is gone, vanished.

Yes, I am being sensational. True, there is little evidence Google has such pernicious motives, but one part of this doomsday scenario is not only feasible, it’s happening now. A $125-million settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the copyright holders of millions of books may provide Google exclusive digital rights to most of the books in the world.

The lawsuit is a result of Google’s Book Search Project, for which the company has scanned and digitized more than 7 million books in the last five years. Google has been digitizing and making available for download all books not under U.S. copyright law. It also scans and shows snippets – up to 20 percent – of copyrighted books, under the protection of the Fair Use doctrine. Google’s intention, according to its mission statement, is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” However, being able to publish snippets of books in search results also creates revenue, which is why a consortium of authors and publishers sued Google in 2005 demanding a share of the profits.

What happened next was a bit of legal maneuvering so sly it would have blown Perry Mason’s mind.

When Google sat down at the negotiating table with publishers, it was ready and willing to pony up a bundle of cash to keep its digital library growing. However, what it wanted in return was an explicit license to digitize and sell “orphan books,” which are out-of-print copyrighted works with no findable heir or owner. By some estimates, these books make up about 70 percent of books in print, and there’s no precedent for whom their digital rights should belong to.

By wresting control of orphan books into perpetuity, Google essentially turned the concept of a class-action lawsuit inside out. In addition, it inserted a “most favored nation” clause in the settlement, which would prevent publishers from offering better terms on non-orphan books to Google’s future competitors.

The ramifications are chilling. Brewster Kahle, founder of the non-profit Internet library Archive.org, said future libraries may be nothing more than “subscribers to a few monopoly corporations’ databases.” Even more worrisome will be Google’s ability to alter the availability and popularity of literature via its search rank. If Google doesn’t like a book, it will be able to effectively purge it by making it unsearchable. The cherry on top is that Google will have a comprehensive database of the reading lists of all Americans that will be searchable by any topic. Wow, I wonder who might be interested in that?

The only good news is that the settlement has yet to be approved, and a public comment period during which objections can be heard has just been extended. Consumer groups, publishers and even Microsoft have stated their opposition to the settlement. More importantly, it appears the Department of Justice is considering filing an anti-trust grievance against Google.

It should.

There has been much speculation on how the Obama administration would deal with Google – who tussled with the Bush DOJ on numerous occasions – as Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt was previously an informal technology advisor to the president. The administration needs to quell any speculation of favorable treatment by intervening now.

America’s most powerful corporation having a virtual monopoly on digital books isn’t just bad news; it’s cataclysmic. If anyone should be conscious of the awesome power of the world’s biggest search engine, it’s President Obama. His name returns 103 million results.

This article was printed in the Oregon Daily Emerald on May 4.  Props to Patrick Finny for the illustration.

4 responses to “A New Google Order”

  1. Michaelc says:

    This article is a pretty sad case of fear mongering.

    Google is not getting any kind of monopoly on these books, and the books that google is wanting to digitize the most are orphaned out of print books with little commercial value. It is far more disturbing to me that a book becomes unavailable to the world because a publisher can’t make a buck on it than google wanting to make sure that if it pays for the right to scan and display the book that some other company can’t come along and pay less for the same rights.

    The idea that google would alter the books search ranking is purely speculative, and the author does not even say what the advantage of doing that would be. It is not as if Google is charging for viewing the scanned books.

    I am probably more suspicious of giant corporations motives than most people, but I don’t see any evidence of anything nefarious here, in fact I am looking forward to using what will probably be the world’s largest electronic library.

  2. Dan says:

    I think there’s every reason to be afraid.

    Dangerous monopolies aren’t erected over night, but are part of a gradual process of people turning the other way as companies accrue an insufferable amount of power. It’s hard for me to understand how you can claim that Google isn’t getting a monopoly on digital books, when that’s exactly what they have negotiated for. Check out this Wired fact if you want to hear it from someone besides me.

    To compete with Google, another large corporation would have to provoke a class-action lawsuit with the publishers guild and then negotiate the same sort of settlement. It would also have to overcome Google’s “most favored nation” clause, which forbids publishers to negotiate a sweeter deal with anyone besides Google. This is highly improbable.

    You are right that Google isn’t selling books yet. You’re wrong that they won’t be doing so in the future, they’ve explicitly said they will (see Wired fact). And it’s true that the charge that Google will alter search results is completely speculative–I noted that in the piece–but the fact that they will have the potential to censor literature based on search availability is apparent and eerie.

    I hate to paint doomsday scenarios, in fact it’s something I almost always avoid. But I just can’t validate a wait-and-see approach in a situation like this. Yes, digitizing books is a great idea, but why should Google by the sole force allowed to do so. I think that’s a very dangerous idea.

  3. […] Read my Column on Google’s Book Project Here […]

  4. steve says:

    “out-of-print copyrighted works with no findable heir or owner[…]by some estimates[…]make up about 70 percent of books in print”

    How can the out-of-print books constitute any percentage of the books in print? It’s like saying old cats make up about 70 percent of kittens.

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