The Great Library of Googleplex

From Robert Darnton’s Google and the Future of Books in the New York Review of Books:

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the [Publishers vs Google] settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit. If approved by the court—a process that could take as much as two years—the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.

This outcome was not anticipated at the outset. Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. By spreading the cost in various ways—a rental based on the amount of use of a database or a budget line in the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Library of Congress—we could have provided authors and publishers with a legitimate income, while maintaining an open access repository or one in which access was based on reasonable fees. We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit …

As an unintended consequence, Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly—a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information.

2 thoughts on “The Great Library of Googleplex

  1. Jim

    One possible solution, an anathema to some folks’ idea of what “America is all about”, would be to simply nationalize Google. Certainly we could use their expertise at the National level to modernize our infrastructure. Certainly it would be complicated (well beyond me), but it is within the realm of possibility given the political will. I do understand it’s one hell of a given, but since we pretty much have nationalized the banks at this point, what the hell.

  2. Tom Lord

    I must “call B.S.” to that.

    The Google monopoly on digitized works is by design and this heavily politicized, namby-pamby “settlement” was part of their plan from the start – it was one of the predictable outcomes of a conspiracy that involved Google, Harvard, Stanford, and others.

    Google started with the brand identity of being the go-to source for on-line information and a boatload of cash. They deliberately broke the law, exploiting social connections to entangle a few ivy league libraries in the mess they set out to make.

    It’s “chess” like that and it’s not even particularly sophisticated chess.

    The only “unintended” thing is by third parties. When Google and the elite libraries embarked on this I called it and asked influential people in the industry to fight back hard against Google’s “above the law” attitude. I was fed platitudes and excuses in response (people know where their bread might one day be buttered, so to speak).


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