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Google Book Search Settlement: Another Digital Pandora's Box

Jon Arnold

A very good friend of mine is an archivist with the Ontario government, and we share similar views on how technology is impacting modern life. He passed a really interesting item along that ran in yesterday's Washington Post. Some of you may be following this — Google's Book Search Settlement. I can definitely see how this has a direct bearing on the archive space, but also how it touches on a few tangents of my world — emerging communications technologies.

This story was new to me, and you should start here to get a basic grounding. The story was written by Brewster Kahle, and as the Director of the Internet Archive, he has a pretty good take on what this all means.

Basically, the issue is about how Google is waiting on a court ruling that could essentially grant them a monopoly on "in copyright but out of print" books — which, according to the article represents "50% to 70% of all books published after 1923". Wow — that's a lot of books, and the article goes on to say this would effectively allow Google to "privatize our libraries". If that's not a Big Brother scenario waiting to happen, I don't know what is.

I totally agree with the author that this could set a very dangerous precedent and runs totally counter to foundations of the Internet revolution. Most of us would agree that these principles are about openness, sharing and easy access — all of which serve to make information and knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection. This is a very powerful concept for any discipline, especially education, where so much of the world has little or no access to books. To put this kind of control in private hands — whether it be Google or a startup — seems like a bad idea on so many levels.

Sure, Google has made the investment in time and resources to scan these books and bring them into the digital fold. It's the same Net Neutrality argument that service providers make when they build broadband networks and then don't want to share them freely with OTT operators. There is definitely a fair economic case to support this tradeoff, but in both cases we're talking about things that are essentially public domain — books and the Internet.

You can also argue that Google has the means to add lots of intelligence to the process of accessing these digital books, especially in terms of search and indexing of content. No doubt the possibilities to enrich the knowledge that can be gleaned from these books are very exciting and compelling. But again, privatization seems like to high a price to pay. Surely there is a better, and more egalitarian way to approach this.

There's so much to consider here, and I'll leave this for you to explore further. Check out these links to get started - here, here and here. A lot of this is outside my everyday expertise, but it doesn't take much to see the implications here for other forms of copyrighted digital media — music, cinema, photography.

Regardless of this turns out, anyone following my world should follow this carefully because I think this will set some precedents for new business models, which is something this space desperately needs — but only the right kind. Stay tuned — I sure will.

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates Jon is also co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners that focuses on the smart grid space. Visit Page
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