We all know Google as the search engine we’re most likely to use on our computers, as I do several times a day. Google is also a public company, making its stock market debut in August 2004 when 19.6 million shares were sold at US$85 (A$113.77) raising US$1.67 billion (A$2.24 billion). Today, Google is worth roughly US$90 billion (A$120.5 billion), making staggering profits through its online advertising programs. For the third quarter of 2005, Google reported record profits of US$ 381 million (A$510 million) on revenues of US$1.6 billion (A$2.1 billion) and sales of US$1.05 billion (A$1.4 billion). Google is no charity.
Recently, the company announced the Google Print project. On the face of it, Google Print is an excellent use of internet technology. If you haven’t used it, check it out at http://print.google.com.au. You’ll find you can search an online database of thousands of books and view sample pages. For example, I used the search term “Australian Society of Authors” and in seconds I had a list of publications in which this term appears. The publications included a tremendous variety of works a considerable number of which were by past and present ASA members including works of Anthony Barker and Anna Funder. The only thing these works had in common was that somewhere in their text was contained the term “Australian Society of Authors”.
With the next mouse click Google Print took me directly to an electronic copy of the page where that term appears. In the case of Anthony Barker, the page was from the index where the ASA was listed. For Anna Funder, I found myself looking at the acknowledgements section of Bruno Amato’s Italian translation of Stasiland, the novel published after Funder’s ASA mentorship with John Tranter. I could look at a number of pages either side of the one I was first taken to, as well as the copyright page and the contents pages. I was unable to print out any of the book pages. Google claims this is impossible, as it also claims it is impossible to access an entire book through this means. However, I suspect some smart hacker is already working on ways to outwit the protection technology Google has in place.
The books I uncovered in my search had been licensed into Google Print by their publishers. Google Print is aimed at publishers, although it will deal with self-publishers. It invites large publishers or small presses to think of Google Print as a free worldwide sales and marketing system that matches people who are looking for information with the relevant words and phrases inside their books.
A number of publishers, such as Cambridge University Press, still have reservations about the system and they require users of Google Print to enter additional information before they can view the pages of their books. For these publishers, users are required to register to use the service. Some other publishers list only their books and restrict access to any pages from their books, even though the content remains searchable. That is, a user knows the information is in the book but can’t read it on screen. Other publishers allow users to search non-fiction works, but not fiction. As an example of this, I searched using Miles Franklin award-winner Andrew McGahan’s name. An impressive list of his titles appeared and I was able to view front and back covers, access ISBNs and read copyright information but nothing else. It was enough to give me a taste of the books. Amazon offers a similar service for many of the titles it offers for sale and displays front and back cover, contents copyright information and a little snippet of text.
Google argues its business model will attract new readers and boost book sales, allow publishers and authors to earn new revenue from Google contextual ads, and to interact more closely with customers through direct links back to the publishers’ websites. It is certainly a service of benefit to serious and casual researchers, and it’s much less confronting than asking a stupid question of a librarian or bookseller. Indeed, booksellers should be worried about this model as it has the potential to remove them from the supply chain.
Potentially authors can gain not only extra sales but additional subsidiary income, provided of course their publishing contract allows for them to share extra revenue from Google Print or in fact permits the publisher to licence an electronic facsimile of their book into Google Print. Questions about such grants of rights may well become issues between authors and publishers in the future, as is currently the case with aggregators of online content. Even so, Google Print seems like a sensible move into the digital environment. Google’s competitors think so. Yahoo, in partnership with Hewlett Packard, Adobe and the universities of California and Toronto, has announced plans to offer searchable, digitised texts as well. Yahoo, like Google, obviously scents money. Unlike, Google, however, Yahoo plans only to digitise works that are in the public domain or for which it has the rightsholders’ permission.
It is Google’s plans to digitise works without the permission of rightsholders that has earned the wrath of both the Authors’ Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Both organisations are suing Google. The issue is Google Print’s abuse of authors’ rights through its digitisation of books held in various US libraries in a project known as Google Library. In doing so, Google shows no respect for copyright. Rather, Google is claiming it has a fair use exemption that permits it to ignore the rights of authors and publishers.
Google’s seeming concession to rightsholders is to offer an “opt out” facility. Google says it will not digitise the works of those who voice their objections. Google also says it will remove works already digitised if rightsholders – and that means authors like you and me – tell it to do so.
Sounds reasonable, says Joe Public. Sounds like daylight robbery to me. Google has no right to steal the digitisation rights of authors. It is acting like a thief in this regard. It is no defence for a thief caught with stolen goods in his hands to say “oh, is this yours? Sorry, I didn’t mean to pinch it. Here, have it back”. It’s no defence for Google, either, but nevertheless Google is trying it on.
Respect for copyright, and the creative effort it is intended to reward, is a vital concern for both authors and publishers. It is the basis for the contracts into which authors and publishers enter.
Google’s digitisation of books in libraries ignores this. Google proposes to digitise hundreds of thousands books in their entirety without seeking permission from the authors of those books. Theft is theft is theft. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Google could licence the content and not act as a pirate, raiding library collections without regard for rights. With an appropriate licence system in place even more material could be made available to users. This is not a difficult problem to overcome. Businesses sign licence agreements every day.
Obviously, Google sees profitable outcomes in its investment in Google Library. Both Google Print and Google Library are intended to bring more visitors and profits to its website and ancillary services. However, in the case of Google Library, the profit comes from the works of authors. Those authors – you and me -- should be properly compensated.
Nothing more, nothing less.