Mystery, Murder, Theft, and Google

Undisputed Fact: I love books. No, I don’t think you quite understand: I love books. If I were to tell you the number of books sitting on shelves in my room right now, I’d probably scandalize you. If I talked about the number of books about books that I’ve read, you’d probably recommend that I pursue healthier hobbies. If I were asked to find a word that could better communicate my obsession and love affair with books, I’d start my search in, yes, a book. All of this is to say that I love books and firmly attest to the mantra “when in doubt, go to the library.”

But, while adventures leap from the dusty folds of dog-eared pages, stories about books are often, well, quite boring. At least that was my running presumption, until I discovered the Atlantic’s recent article “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria.”

It’s the story—drama and tragedy, nearly science fiction—surrounding Google Books. It contains mystery, intrigue, and conflict. And while it doesn’t contain murder, it contains stakes which seem much higher.

Act I: A BIG Idea.

One of the Co-founders of Google, Larry Page, had an idea: scanning all the books ever written, creating a sort of universal digital library. His alma mater the University of Michigan attempted a similar project with its library collection of 7 million volumes, which would take the university nearly 1,000 years to complete on its own. Larry Page thought Google could accomplish the feat in 6 years.

They struck a deal, a deal which soon expanded to include Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, and more… Google created custom scanners and special software, and dedicated tons of money (40-50 million dollars per year) to the endeavor.

A decade later, Google announced that it had scanned 25 million books, which is nearly 1/5th of the estimated number of books published in the entirety of human history. The feat is astounding, but it also raised questions.

Act II: The Plot Thickens with Complications and Ideas

In response, publishers and authors filed a class action lawsuit against Google alleging copyright infringement. Google responded by claiming that its copying was limited to “fair use” asserting that their intention was to only use “snippets” of the works. They were merely using small sections of the books, scanning these books/sections into a complicated network of linked citations. The central question of the legal suit was whether or not this scanning and use of snippets was fair use, but it led both sides to a question: Couldn’t Google easily do more than simply search books?

And then the plot thickened: Google could easily do more, especially when it comes to out-of-print or “back catalogue” books. An idea developed: Google could bring to life books long dead; it could bring these books back to general consumption and research. It could create an eternal library which encompassed the entirety of human knowledge and publication. The idea was a very “google” idea concerning human knowledge, both vast and futuristic, but it also seemed that it might be in the publisher’s and author’s interest to let it happen.

Google’s digitizing out-of-print books could not only preserve the knowledge and works, but also inspire new interest and research in the forgotten works. Out-of-print books are dead weight to publishers and, frankly, dead to authors. The Google option would relieve the weight, would give attention to lost or forgotten works, and would provide compensation to copyright holders that they would not receive otherwise. Maybe it would be in the best interest of everyone to allow Google to resurrect the back catalogue: “The plaintiffs… had gotten themselves into a pretty unusual situation. They didn’t want to lose their own lawsuit—but they didn’t want to win it either.” 1

Act III: A Settlement in the Middle Ground, that Never Happened.

Soon, it became apparent that both Google and the authors and publishers were interested in more than simply the question of “snippets.” The authors and the publishers were driven by the idea that, in fact, creating this sort of eternal and universal library—with protection for the copyright holders—might be a good idea. Here’s the crazy thing: Google agreed.

What started as a class action lawsuit concerning snippets, developed into a possible settlement which extended much, much further. Google would create a digital library of all the books ever written using a sort of creative, collective licensing agreement—an agreement from which authors and publishers could “opt-out” at any time. The agreement would allow for the library, and even sale of books with 63% of the revenue from sales funding a new entity: “The Book Rights Registry.” This entity would be tasked with 1) distributing the funds from the sales and use to the copyright holders, and 2) discovering who actually held the rights to the books—a particular challenge for all out-of-print books.

It appeared like it was too good to be true for both Google and the authors. In one settlement: the universal library would be created, Google would implement a system of public access for schools and libraries, previously lost books which were out-of-print would be accessible, and authors and publishers would be paid. The ramifications would be vast and unfathomable—nearly a story of science fiction, which is exactly why the settlement failed.

As a class action, the settlement “could theoretically bind just about every author and publisher with a book in an American library.” 2 It would bind them to a single corporation, the mighty Google. The sheer scope of the settlement proposal and the allegations that it would create a sort of monopoly of access to books eventually killed the settlement.

Act IV: A Court Case, But Who Won?

Instead of a settlement, the case went to trial: Google won, but everyone lost. Google could legally use its “snippets” of books as part of fair use; and since Google’s scanned copies were “fair use,” the authors and publishers received nothing. Google was not allowed to create its universal library, and the out-of-print books exist somewhere, scanned and ready but locked away.

Act V: So… Now what?

The end of the drama concludes not with a murder or further intrigue, but rather with a quiet whimper. The Atlantic article concludes with the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the U.S. Government takes the Ark of the Covenant and simply shelves it away. As a lover of books and knowledge, the image resonates with me.

A simple flick of a switch, a short line of subroutine, and suddenly over 25 million books become instantly accessible. An eternal, universal library erected as “one of the great[est] humanitarian artifacts of all time.” 3.

BUT, with the excitement of such a possibility also lies the scary reality: a single corporation would hold the keys to this universal library. All of human knowledge and publication held by a lone, colossal mega-corporation. It sounds like the plot for a science fiction movie, except that it very nearly happened.

  1.  https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/the-tragedy-of-google-books/523320/
  2. Quotation from the Atlantic article linked above.
  3. Again, credited the Atlantic

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