Jan 22, 2007

are you ready for the revolution? Google is the new Alexandria

They want to digitize everything, and they're doing it. Books by the thousand, for a new archive of information rivaling that wonder of the ancient world. Bryan Appleyard reports.
The first thing to be said is that Google Book Search, though still in its “beta” or unfinalised form, is an astonishing mechanism. Putting my own name in came up with 626 references and gave me immediate access to passages containing my name in books, most of which were quite unknown to me. Moreover, clicking on one of these references brings up an image of the actual page in question.

But the second thing to be said is that I could read whole passages of my books of which I own the copyright. At once a huge intellectual property issue looms. The Americans are ploughing ahead with this, scanning in material both in and out of copyright. The British — at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the British Library — are being more cautious, allowing only the scanning of out-of-copyright books. This may, of course, mean nothing, since the big American libraries will, like the Bodleian and the British Library, contain every book published in English, so they will all ultimately be out there on the net.

American publishers are not happy. Before its 2004 announcement, Google had been doing deals with individual publishers to scan their books. But digitising the libraries would seem to render these deals defunct. Furthermore, since Google is acquiring copyright material at no cost, it seems to be treating books quite differently from all other media. It is prepared to pay for video and music, but not, apparently, for books. The Google defence is that their Book Search system is covered by the legal concept of “fair dealing”. No more than 20% of a copyright book will be available, the search is designed to show just relevant passages, and it will provide links to sites where the book can be bought.

Unimpressed, the Authors Guild, supported by the Association of American Publishers, has started a class action suit against Google. A deal may yet be done, but neither side sounds in a compromising mood, and it looks likely that this will go all the way to the Supreme Court, whose ruling on this case may prove momentous.
Largely I try to maintain objectivity when discussing the technological implications, but in this case: go Google. It's an incredible research opportunity. Amazon.com's similar "Search Inside the Book" feature proves it can work, and by limiting access, proves it won't destroy copyright.

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