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Not Everyone Wants to Play Google’s Library Game

It seems like Google is unstoppable. Frank’s recent post about Google and his talk on the subject reminds that Google is everywhere. Dan Solove’s new book is necessary in part because of Google and other search engines. Google has even popped up offline. Rumors of taking on phone technology abound. And as many know Google has set its sights on books too. As Frank noted Siva Vaidhyanathan among others has questioned Google’s control of information. Vaidhyanathan’s paper, The Googlization of Everything and. the Future of Copyright, which appeared in the U.C. Davis Law Review, offers that in the book realm Google’s actions may trigger a large step backwards because of the nature of fair use.

As Vaidhyanathan admits he only highlights the danger of one court or Congress listening to copyright corporations and restricting the potential of information sharing that the Internet and the book project offers. That alone merits consideration. I do think, however, the paper makes some overstatements about search issues and “stable texts like books.” He argues that Google’s search in books lacks neutrality, and its utility alone will not save it because:

It is hardly an effective or comprehensive research tool. It generates too many ridiculous results for simple searches. It cannot screen out bad results very well. And Google offers no simple information-seeking training to its customers. Searching the text of books is rarely a better way to search than searching among books. Books are discreet documents that operate with internal cohesion more than external linkages.

This idea seems to suggest that those who use Westlaw or Lexis cannot find material well. I think Google supports some level of Boolean searches and Google could easily add subject matter indices to mimic library catalogs. In short, focusing on small issues such as improving the utility of the search detracts from the bigger point. Google can fix or enhance the searches. The improvements will not necessarily stop one of the key points made in the paper. True believer arrogance in the face of laws that see the world in quite a different way can lead to bigger problems. Here Google’s contract which gives libraries an electronic copy in return for participation runs into copyright law for the law is not sure what to do with such copying other than say it is not allowed.

Thus even though some libraries reject Google’s onerous terms, Google’s acts may foment a poorly written ruling or law that hinders other movements which seek to extend access to knowledge. For those interested in one such movement check out the Open Content Alliance. 

Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.


2 thoughts on “Not Everyone Wants to Play Google’s Library Game”

  1. I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the beginning of the resumption after the block quote:

    “This idea seems to suggest that those who use Westlaw or Lexis cannot find material well.”

    Based on what I’ve seen from too many associates (and even partners) who never learned to read anything in context, “those who use Westlaw or Lexis” as their principle law-finding tools are not exactly paradigmatic of careful researchers. Far too often, I see soundbites submitted as authority for dubious propositions; sometimes it only takes reading the whole sentence/paragraph in which the soundbite occurs. One of my favorites was a submission in a federal appellate brief by opposing counsel on the appropriate standard for summary judgment in which the entire preceding paragraph explained that the decision did not concern summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. Sadly, this is far from an isolated instance (either in that matter or in general).

    In short, a finding tool is not a substitute for actually reading the material. The current generation of online finding tools — Google, Westlaw, Lexis, whatever — does an extremely poor job of providing enough context to actually evaluate a legal text, and a relatively poor job for nonlegal texts. If we go into the “finding tool” debate with this in mind, we’re going to come to a different conclusion than if we go into the “finding tool” debate equating the tool to the library itself.

  2. C.E.,

    I am not at all stating that a finding or research tool is a substitute for reading and understanding material. The point is that a good researcher knows how to find material that MAY relate and be on point. You are correct that one must think and sort to see whether the material is useful. The quote only states that one can find material. Context and applicabilty concerns come up even under the old reader’s guide to periodicals and subject matter indices way of researching. In addition, when one learns how to use the databases well one can have great staring point; not the end point. In other words, the narrowness of a search can of course allow someone to err in being sure that the material is on point. Another problem is stopping at what appears to be on all fours. The better way to approach research is to read the material and see what is cited or what key phrases may allow one to use a new search to find more material.

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