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Why Google Book Search Got Lost

We’ve been reading with interest Scott Rosenberg’s essay in Backchannel, “How Google Book Search Got Lost.” It has stirred up some controversy, and we’ve been following that, too. As you can tell from the headline, it explores a sense that Google’s famous (or notorious) book-scanning project has somehow failed to live up to its early promise.

Maybe early expectations were too utopian. Maybe the project was waylaid by its opponents, among whom we at the Authors Guild were prominent. Famously (or notoriously), we sued Google, arguing that digitizing books without asking authors for permission violated their copyrights. Google argued for a new and expansive view of “fair use,” and after years of back and forth, the federal appeals court in New York ruled for Google. The Supreme Court wouldn’t take the case, so that’s where things stand.

Google is free to keep doing what it always wanted to do. Yet some people feel let down. Scott Rosenberg says, “It lost its drive and ambition.”

I’ve known Scott for a while as a first-rate tech reporter and essayist, and he quotes me in the article. I was one of the Authors Guild people who spent several years negotiating with Google (and a bunch of publishers) to reach a settlement that we thought would benefit everyone: Google, authors, publishers, and, most of all, readers. It envisioned a quick and dirty start on the long dreamed-of universal digital library. Not everything would be free, because we authors still need to earn a living. But something like All the World’s Books would be available everywhere, or at least everywhere the Internet reached.

The settlement had plenty of opponents, too, and ultimately the courts didn’t allow it. Scott explains the saga pretty well, and his argument is well worth following. But then be sure also to read Richard Russo’s essay on the Google case as we saw it.

Meanwhile, there is continuing confusion about orphan works. The article gets it wrong, defining orphan works as books that are in copyright but out of print. That’s a lot of books, and most of them aren’t orphans: the copyright holders are alive and well and—this is the important point—still entitled to make a little money, if there’s money to be made.

A true orphan work is a book whose rightsholder doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care, or can’t be found. That happens. When a book really becomes an orphan, it would benefit everyone for the rights to enter the public domain.

But the mere condition of being out of print isn’t irreparable. Many books go from being out of print to being back in print. Indeed, the Authors Guild has helped many authors accomplish that. Especially now that books develop a commercial life online, the fact that a print publisher lets its license lapse doesn’t mean that the book is now an orphan.

The point of the ill-fated settlement with Google was to give those books a new life—creating a platform in which readers or libraries could pay a small amount for these older copyrighted books and authors could receive a bit of compensation. The Authors Guild hasn’t given up on making that possible. We’re working with some libraries on ways to do it, and we hope to have more to say about that soon.

One of the more interesting responses to the Backchannel article came (via tweetstorm!) from Alex Macgillivray, whom I remember well from our many negotiating sessions at Google. He is a super smart guy, an aggressive lawyer, always worth listening to. Since Google, he’s had big jobs at Twitter and, not incidentally, in the Obama White House. He says—rightly, in my view—that if Google Books was nothing more than a search project, that in itself was ambitious and worthy. A moonshot: “Scanning the world’s books so we could find them through full-text search was mostly accomplished. We should celebrate, not mourn.”

As Evelyn Waugh would say: Up to a point, Lord Copper. 

The Google Books program was widely misunderstood. (So was our lawsuit. I think it’s fair to say that the Guild never managed to communicate well the issues at stake.) Google didn’t intend—initially at least—to serve as a vast Internet library. It aimed to improve its search engine—and beyond that, it aimed to gain complete possession of the invaluable corpus represented by the world’s literary legacy. It did that, remember, without buying a single book.

We authors, for our part, didn’t object to Google’s creating of a search index. In itself, search had obvious benefits for everyone, readers and writers alike. We objected to Google’s seizing without permission the full texts of copyrighted books for profit-making purposes not limited to indexing and never, in fact, fully disclosed. These books are enormously valuable to anyone working on algorithmic translation and machine learning.

If the company has let the public-facing side of Google Books slide, perhaps it’s because that was never the top priority.

The big tech companies and the creative communities seem to be at odds these days. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. Technology has wonderful ways of removing friction and hardship from the flow of information hither and yon. As an author, I must surely be one of Google Books’ biggest users—I’m the first to admit that it has transformed my research life for the better. And I also feel it could be much more than it is.

But let me give Scott Rosenberg the last word, because he seems like someone who appreciates a good book:

“When you turn a book into data, you make it easy to find quotes and search snippets, but you don’t make it fundamentally easier to do the work of reading the book — that irreplaceable experience of allowing one’s own mind to be temporarily inhabited by the voice of another person.”

James Gleick