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University Press on Google Book Search

Over at Sivacracy, Tony Sanfilippo at the Penn State University Press posted the full text of an email to Cory Doctorow, criticizing what he (Tony S.) describes as Google’s undisclosed intention to use Google Book Search content to compete with publishers for digital copies of their books:

I was at the Association of American Publisher’s conference and the most interesting thing that I heard was not Dr. Coleman’s speech about burning libraries, but an answer to a question she was asked about University of Michigan’s participation in GBS.

Q: Some publishers have asked Google if they would give the copyright holders a digital copy of their content in exchange for a license to make those copies. Google has yet to respond to those requests. Would University of Michigan consider giving the copyright holders a copy of their own content?

A: No. Our contract with Google prevents us from doing that.

What she’s talking about is section 4.4.1 of the contract which prevents the University from giving a third party a copy of the files. There is nothing else in the contract preventing the University from giving copies to the copyright holders. When I first read that section I thought it was a protection for publishers, preventing the University from distributing copies. Now I understand that it’s Google’s way to protect its monetizing of that content.

Ask yourself why Google wouldn’t want the copyright owners to have a copy of their own content? I estimate that of the in copyright content that Google will be digitizing, at least 60% of that content will be getting digitized for the first time by this project, probably more. Most publishers didn’t start creating content digitally until the 90s and most have only begun to digitize their older content. Could it be that Google wants to prevent the copyright holders from competing with them in the eventual selling of that content online?

After reading the story linked above and other public relations material from Google I’m convinced that’s what’s happening. Google wants a monopoly on the distribution of that content online, and unfortunately The University of Michigan and you are aiding them in that pursuit. Yes they intend to give the copyright holders a cut, but as the tone of Larry Page’s statement conveys, we will agree to it because we have no other choice.

We are a university press publisher, and we are now a branch of our university’s library system, our mission is the dissemination of scholarship. Not only does Google undermine the sustainabilty of that mission, they will soon be empowered to choose who will be allowed to access that scholarship digitally and how much they will pay for it. Why do you disregard the fact that they are a publicly held company with a responsibility to their shareholders? Read John Battelle’s piece just posted on BB and ask yourself, do you really trust a company that puts business before freedom? Why would Google prevent one university library from giving another university library their own scholarship?

You may not remember but I wrote an editorial in Publisher’s Weekly asking Google to exchange the right to include our books for a digital copy of those books. No money, just a copy. Some we wanted to include in the library’s open access digital bookshelf, some we wanted to donate to the Open Content Alliance, and all of them would have been brought back into print as cheap Print on Demand editions. Google told us no, and told us that they were planning to get into content distribution so we shouldn’t worry about bringing them back into print. We weren’t allowed to disclose that though because of an NDA. Now that they themselves are disclosing it I hope people will start putting two and two together.

I know GBS seems like a great idea, and it might be if it were occurring in the public sector, but please think about these issues. It is not a simple as it seems. It’s not about snippets, fair use, or selling books, it is about control. Are you sure we should hand this much control over our printed legacy to a corporation?

Well, hmmm. There are at least a couple of things going on here, and it’s important to tease them apart. One is the “big companies are bad, and corporations are especially bad” rhetoric, which I think needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Google isn’t all sugar and light, but the fact that it’s a public company doesn’t automatically make it evil; the question is the ethical framework that it inhabits. By the same token, a university (or even a library) isn’t automatically a noble, trustworthy institution. Modern research universities run billion-dollar budgets and often commercialize their faculty’s work product as fast and as far as they can. Two is the rhetoric of “monopoly”: the problem with Google Book Search is that it puts control over digital information in the hands of a single provider. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, distributed supplies sound better than centrally-managed supplies, but (on the other hand) you have to look at the conditions of the distributed market (are all those distributed commercial publishers playing leapfrog to be the most aggressive marketers of digitized versions of their catalogs?), and you have to ask whether Google’s management of the Book Search database really amounts to central control over that data. I won’t extend this post to argue the point, but I think that it doesn’t. And three is the “isn’t it suspicious that Google won’t allow Michigan to trade a digital copy of full-text entries in the Book Search data for permission to make those copies in the first place?” line of reasoning. I believe that this point has been made elsewhere, but it bears repeating: As a lawyer, if you’re making an argument that you believe both depends on and reinforces an important principle of fair use, you don’t want your client to do things that undermine that argument — like ask for and receive permission to reproduce the work.