Digital Search I: Google Poisons the Well

I am apparently not the only person who feels a bit bait-and-switched by the state of Google’s digitization projects after the settlement. So much so that Sergey Brin himself has sallied forth to defend the current terms in the New York Times.

Several years ago, my feeling was that the main forces opposed to Google’s digitization of libraries were some of same groups and interests opposed to digitization in principle, or to open-access forms of publication.

Sure, there were also those with specific suspicions about Google’s intentions, most particularly regarding how the company intended to profit from the project. In retrospect, those suspicions were warranted.

Back when the digitization of some big academic libraries began under Google’s supervision, the company tended to politely sidestep direct questions about their own financial interests in the project. I recall several conversations I was involved in where the speculation was that Google intended to operate a book store to compete with Amazon, focused on in-print books that turned up in searches.

Or that the company was interested in working on the next frontier of problems with search technology itself, which required going beyond the clever mirroring that Google presently employs (e.g., using people do on the web as a kind of map of how knowledge is connected and what kind of knowledge is important). Searching a huge space of scanned books and document for relevant content might take a completely different approach to work well, and that approach might add up to a technology as lucrative as Google’s initial approaches to search turned out to be. Or that the company would somehow link the project to its existing advertising business.

The fear was always that Google would try to grab hold of the “orphan works” in large research libraries once they were digitized and sell those back to research institutions on an exclusive basis, to become the king vendor atop the mountain of digital databases. Well, once the settlement took on concrete shape, that turned out to be exactly where the company was heading.

I was initially welcoming to Google’s initiative because I believe that digitization is crucial for the improved dissemination of knowledge. I think scholars in many fields have been for a great many years frustratingly indifferent to dissemination as a primal commandment. Digitization at this scale is expensive, so I was always open to the idea that Google would try to make back its money in some fashion. The problem is that they’ve chosen to try and make it back in the one manner that will permanently impede rather than enable new conditions of information circulation.

Brin disingenuously suggests that out-of-print work is available now only to those who can afford to hop on a plane and fly to a library which holds such work. There’s a very small class of materials about which this is true: rare books, archival holdings and the like. Which are not the materials being digitized at the moment. Otherwise, there are a fairly large number of institutions which participate in inter-library loan or in more regional equivalents. The books may have to fly on a plane, but not the researchers.

Making a Google-digitized collection available to libraries for an annual fee doesn’t permanently open up that collection to a wider circulation. The basic problem with the entire economy of digitized research materials at the moment is that the whole apparatus has become a gun held permanently to the temple of libraries: work that they formerly owned outright is now rented for variable fees from vendors who are mostly interested in the extension of their own monopolies over information rather than on lowering barriers to use. Google’s entry into that economy just turns that gun into a rocket launcher.

I don’t mind it if Google Book Search recaptures its costs through ad revenue or through sales of in-print books. I don’t really care that much about whether the revenue goes to a rights-holder, or about making efforts to find rights-holders. I think some of that concern is a red herring, and is mostly about making sure that existing publishers get whatever cut of the pie they think they can snatch out of the whole deal. Scholars mostly don’t research and disseminate for royalty payments. Worrying about a slightly bigger share of chump-change is for chumps.

I do mind if the orphan-works content of Google Book Search is something that Google owns and sells access to on a vendor basis. When Brin titles his piece, “A Library to Last Forever”, my instinctive riposte is “A Monopoly to Last Forever”, that this is the worst kind of digital enclosure at the largest possible scale. This is really one of those moments where we either make digitization something that permanently opens up a knowledge-producing commons or something that permanently is controlled and exploited by a single interest.

In that context, it’s not only unconvincing for Brin to defend the project in terms of its urgent necessity, it’s actively hackle-raising that he does so. When I hear something like, “Hey, don’t worry about the fine print or the nitty-gritty details, we can work that out later. The most important thing is that we get it done, right? Think of the children!” what I hear instead is, “Ya got trouble, my friend, right here in River City”.

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6 Responses to Digital Search I: Google Poisons the Well

  1. evangoer says:

    This is what irks me about the whole discussion — if you’re skeptical about this book deal, you’re an Enemy of Progress who hates the idea of digital libraries and hates children.

    Just about everybody wants a digital library in the sky, that would be wonderful. What I haven’t seen yet is a coherent argument that this particular digitization plan is a worthwhile idea. The Perfect might be the enemy of The Good, but so too is The Crappy.

  2. Nicely put. I thought it disingenuous, to say the least, that Brin wrote as if he’d never heard of interlibrary loan. I was also pissed off that he relegated serious concerns about bibliographical quality control to the realm of secondary issues that could be fixed in due time. But then I suppose that’s typical of the culture of the public beta (or, too often, public alpha): why spend money doing things right to begin with when you can get users to do it free?

  3. Intellectual property law will destroy civilization.

  4. aaron says:

    Yeah. I do wonder, though, whether bad digitization is better than no digitization. That’s not a defense of the toolishness of Brin’s argument, but it sometimes seems like the situation we’ve got.

    M-net’s African Film Library is a similar sort of situation. I wish the films were available for free, and feel like they should be, but I’ll probably be glad at the opportunity to pay to use them:

  5. kentfitch says:

    “..the whole apparatus has become a gun held permanently to the temple of libraries: work that they formerly owned outright is now rented for variable fees from vendors who are mostly interested in the extension of their own monopolies over information rather than on lowering barriers to use.”

    There is no need to be as disingenuous as you claim Brin is: the works Google has digitised are STILL owned outright by the libraries; these libraries are free to digitise them independently, and many do. You don’t lift yourself up by attempting to drag others down: leave Google to their commercial motives and their own consequent problems and do the hard work to create the political space for alternatives.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    First, the books in published form and the books in digital form are very significantly different. That’s the point of digitization, after all.

    One library’s collections digitized are also not all libraries (or even just the biggest five or six libraries) collections digitized together. And front-ends matter, too: the point is not merely to digitize but to make searchable. Done in a balkanized or half-implemented fashion, digitization of library collections is not much use. This is why it was a good thing to see Google undertake the job: because they would bring it all together, and couple it to a technically proficient front end design. But having done so, they achieve a kind of momentum, create a path-dependence.

    Equally importantly, while the collections of libraries might have been and still are theirs to digitize for the extension of their existing purpose–to disseminate knowledge and make it useful–they are not theirs to give away for the sake of someone else’s profit. That’s part of the obligation of being a non-profit institution, or ought to be: the resources you hold, you hold in trust for your own institutional publics and for the wider public of your society.

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