Skip to content

Academic Books, Non-Academic Books, BitTorrent, and Google’s Brand Power

D is for Digital is over now. I urge anyone interested in the Google Book Deal (aka the Google Book Search) to check out the schedule page and the webcast links (the stream links are at the top of the Friday and Saturday schedules respectively). James Grimmelmann put together a conference that aired out pro and con views rather well. In fact, I’d say although many were questioning the deal, I learned a good amount about the views of those in favor of the deal. I was not convinced that the deal is good and should go forward, but I appreciated hearing more about how the deal evolved and defenders’ views.

I highly recommend the keynote lunch with Pam Samuelson and Paul Courant. That panel warmed up the group. Some really good questions about transparency of the process, responsibility, and more came up. Pam’s key point that if one builds a pubic good this big, public trust responsibilities go with it was dead on for me. I highly recommend watching the video for all that was said.

The next panel C is for Culture was excellent. James asked a question that has been on my mind and we had kicked around at WIP IP last week. Is Google Book Search irrelevant?

Here is why that is good question. First, the day so far emphasized that the majority of the books in question are academic books. As Pam explained and Paul Duguid echoed, if scholars’ books are at stake, scholars should be involved. Paul made clear that scholarly standards should guide the project.

Now, consider that many books are becoming available on BitTorrent. In addition, one panelist, Dan Reetz has a fascinating project. His DIYscanner project is a wild moment in grassroots digital activism. The story of how he chose to build his low-cost, open source DIY scanner (we’re talking maybe $300-$400 total) so that one could scan personal (and other books) at the rate of a few seconds per page and without destroying the book merits another post. (for now here is a link to the plans to build your own scanner) In addition, Reetz noted that majority of new books are leaked prepublication. As a general matter, a key claim is that users will pay for a book but copy the book so that they can search and take many books with them. The importance of these changes is that crowd-sourced and other approaches to digitizing text is on the move. One can see this shift as indicating market failure or that ereader functionality will be more and more the case.

As scanners, ereaders, and companies like Stanza offer better ways to access, search, mark, and read, the walled or controlled version of the text experience that the Google Book Deal offers seems odd. I doubt, however, that it will be irrelevant. Google’s brand, the ease of searching (even with its errors so far), and the ability to trust Google over BitTorrent or other sources will likely make it relevant to many. Nonetheless, the growth in alternative sources would suggest that Google will need to choose between a web search that captures all useful book offerings or a Google Book Search that only gives Google Book results. Yet, as the last panel on antitrust explored, Google is already dominant in search. It arguably killed a little company called MapQuest. Once Google offered its maps and its maps became the default listing when one entered address information into the search, MapQuest was done. That seems awfully close to the MS bundling issues of the last decade. When it comes to books, Google’s lead and dominance will give it massive power and leverage over how we all access knowledge. Nonetheless, it may be that grassroots, crowd-sourced movements will permit an end around for the control the publishers want through this deal. To be clear an end-around is insufficient protection against the lock-in problems the Google Book Deal poses, but it may help push Google to reach a deal that is less run by publisher interests.