Strong opinions, weakly held

Sergey Brin on Google Books

Google founder Sergey Brin takes to the pages of the New York Times today to explain the value of Google Books:

But the vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries. Books written after 1923 quickly disappear into a literary black hole. With rare exceptions, one can buy them only for the small number of years they are in print. After that, they are found only in a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores. As the years pass, contracts get lost and forgotten, authors and publishers disappear, the rights holders become impossible to track down.

Inevitably, the few remaining copies of the books are left to deteriorate slowly or are lost to fires, floods and other disasters. While I was at Stanford in 1998, floods damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of books. Unfortunately, such events are not uncommon — a similar flood happened at Stanford just 20 years prior. You could read about it in The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report, published in 1980, but this book itself is no longer available.

As an author, I’m completely supportive of Google Books, and I agree with Brin in that I wish there were many such services. Recently an out of print, foreign album I had been searching for in any format for years became available via Amazon MP3. In one day, this band’s music went from being completely inaccessible to being available to essentially everyone with an Internet connection. Google Books’ arrangement is slightly different, but the concept is the same. Most people create things in order to reach an audience, and Google Books gives authors of out of print works an opportunity that simply does not currently exist. It’s unlikely that a better opportunity is worth holding out for.


  1. The idea of scanning, indexing, and making available our enormous literary legacy is a good one.

    The idea of one commercial company doing it and “owning” the result in some way is an extraordinarily bad one.

    This is a project the Library of Congress should pursue with public funding and, if necessary, partnerships with private technology companies.

    We should be very cautious about handing out monopoly rights of this sort. (And this is just about as strong a natural monopoly as one could ask for.)

  2. I’m with you on that. Better the government than Google, but better Google than nobody.

  3. When it’s Google pushing the idea that it’s Google or nobody, I am pretty dubious. They did not invent the idea of scanning all the world’s books and making them available, nor are they the only entity trying to make that happen. However, because there is a natural monopoly position, they are trying to get a jump on everyone else and use their early position to enforce a monopoly. Our corpus of literature is not something that can be owned (or have significant private rights owned) by one private corporation.

    I could care less about author’s rights. What I care about is that online access to the sum of human knowledge should not be left to one corporation through inaction. And the statement that “nothing in this agreement precludes any other company or organization from pursuing their own similar effort” is disingenuous, as it ignores the existence of natural monopolies. There is enormous cost to scanning and enormous financial value in being the provider of material in a position to put advertising on it and (I think ultimately much more significantly) to own the search stream. (That’s actually the part I am most concerned about – the private ownership of library search data.)

    I’m not down on Google in general but I am unhappy about their behavior in this. The word “monopoly” does not appear once in that article, and how can a good-faith discussion about this fail to mention that?

  4. I’m not sure where Google is at fault, though. Google wants to spend the money to the scan all the books with the thought that they will make money on the scanned content in the end. For books that are already in the public domain, that is their right, just as Project Gutenberg can put them online for free and Dover can sell them in bargain editions for a buck apiece. Obviously for books that are still covered, some agreement has to be reached.

    I think that we (as a civilization) should be careful not to let Google control that market, but I’m not sure Google is doing anything anti-competitive here. (Maybe I’m ignorant.) I think a comparison to Lexis-Nexus could be made that’s informative.

  5. LexisNexis did not use a settlement to gain access to works where it cannot find the copyright holders (orphan works) or placing extra restrictions on liberally licensed and public domain works.

    Nothing wrong with preserving works, but Google has really been unnecessarily stubborn in regards to being forthright with the licenses on public domain and liberally licensed works, instead putting a noncommercial license on items created by the federal government and freely available for download from an agency’s web site. Sergey Brin’s arguments just fall apart in regards to their implementation on these works.

  6. Only two words in Brin’s screed are significant: “…after 1923…”

    The rest is deduction, framing, and respiration.

    The public domain preserves content.

    Copyright is only about one thing: restricting access to content. Content that has been physically destroyed is absolutely inaccessible; that is copyright’s logical conclusion.

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