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On Remixing Books

The letters to the New York Times Magazine are sometimes more thought-provoking than the Magazine’s essays themselves. Todays’ comments on Kevin Kelly’s recent Google Book Search manifesto (I’m linking to Laura Quilter’s comments; Siva posted the full text) are particularly good:

Books (and other forms of text) are, of course, far more than that; it is the purveyors of scanning technology who must portray books solely as information, for it is only as bits of information that books can be processed. Texts, which are not just objects but encounters, possess context: ideology, historicity, consciousness, form, not to mention body, material depth. This is true not just for verse and fiction, but for history and science. To “integrate” texts by extracting, remixing and reassembling them, to use Kelly’s terms, is to obliterate the meaningful autonomy that distinguishes the individual work. [emphasis added; I hope that Kelly would respond with something like, “So?”]

“I may be able to find every instance of the phrase “Franco-Prussian War,” but if there is no means to differentiate between relevant, useful texts and incidental occurrences of the phrase, it won’t help me much.” [Read the last part of this post.]

Kelly “attempts to revive the medieval, Faustian dream of latching on to a divine knowledge of the universe.” [Maybe that’s Google, not Kelly.]

Your provocative article should cause any writer to stop and think before lifting from another’s work. Publishers may claim that vetting manuscripts would be too expensive. Yet in the not too distant future, perhaps they will merely run manuscripts through the rinse cycle of the Google library, which will instantly compare them with an enormous database of literature going back to the ancient Sumerians.

And wouldn’t that — the last point — be a great thing? But why put this burden on writers? Why doesn’t this make Google BS the greatest thing for publishers since the invention of the trade paperback? Every work would be a complete and certified original, thus validating (at last) the central premise of copyright!