Busting Google’s Book Monopoly

Not so long ago Google signed a deal to end a lawsuit launched against them by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The Google Book program has been scanning books from a few major libraries since 2005–University of Michigan was one of the first–and making the text searchable online, and displaying snippets of them in the search dialogue. There was an assumption that Google would make money from this process, either by posting their ubiquitous text ads on the interface, or just by the inexorable process of making the internet more useful and thus bringing more folks into Google’s path, or something. The Authors organizations were convinced, reasonably, that Google must have seen a way to make money from it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And they figured that since it’s their job to represent authors, and the product of authors was making money somehow, they wanted a taste. When Google pointed out that making book discovery easier might just be the single biggest thing that anyone could do to drive up declining book sales and make back-catalogs profitable, they didn’t care or weren’t convinced. They wanted money up front, directly, from Google.

So they opened up a public relations front, and opened up a lawsuit alleging infringement.

In the meantime, some other folks got concerned that Google was the only entity scanning books. They figured book discovery was indeed an important public good, and one that probably shouldn’t be the domain of a single for-profit. Google wasn’t talking about giving away their databases, and in fact seemed to be re-negotiating the terms of their agreements with the contributing libraries such that access to the data was becoming increasingly centralized. So the non-profit Open Content Alliance (with cash and tech from Microsoft and Yahoo, among others) fired up their scanners, with the intent of creating a commonly available pool of data on what was in all those books that are sitting on all those shelves.

I give huge props to Google for starting the book scanning movement. Before them, nobody thought it could be done technically, and nobody much seemed to realize that it should be done. In the time since, librarians at participating universities say they’ve seen an enormous uptick in book check-outs. It’s a great program, broadly speaking.

But the data shouldn’t only belong to Google. If the libraries had been collectively smart, once the Open Content Alliance came along offering to scan the books into a shared database they should have switched exclusively over to them, and suggested that Google join to the alliance too. If the author’s associations were smart, they should have supported the initiative whole-heartedly, made what-can-you-do gestures when the databases were leaked and started showing up on Kindles (or alternatively, struck a deal with Amazon), and watched the royalties on sale of physical copies of their back-catalogs skyrocket.

Some libraries did indeed join the OCA, for example University of California and U of Toronto. But the Author’s associations–as content trade groups tend to be–were stupid with greed. How stupid? In order to settle the deal, Google made them an offer: give us a license to scan the works of all the authors you represent, and we’ll give you some money. But only us! And the author’s association said, hey, money! That doesn’t seem like a good deal for the authors to me: book readership has been declining, and getting a few cheques cut from Google HQ isn’t going to change that, but making books relevant and discoverable certainly can. Centralizing that capacity in a single search-provider won’t facilitate relevancy and discoverability. And regardless of the financial benefit or loss to authors, it certainly seems like a bad thing for human knowledge.

And that looked to be that. Yet another centralization of a significant public good into that one single monolithic information infrastructure corporation, Google. Aided once again by Google’s vision, their engineering prowess and their strategic astuteness (I like the term “deep cleverness“). You have to hand it to Google, they are brilliant at what they do. The thing is, you might want it back some day. Google should flourish on their ability to compete in technology and business, not on their ability to end competition. So that deal made me very sad.

Which is why today is a happy day:

Justice Dept. Opens Antitrust Inquiry Into Google Books Deal — MIGUEL HELFT, New York Times (Registration required.)

“The Justice Department has begun an inquiry into the antitrust implications of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers over its Google Book Search service, two people briefed on the matter said Tuesday.

Lawyers for the Justice Department have been in conversations in recent weeks with various groups opposed to the settlement, including the Internet Archive and Consumer Watchdog. More recently, Justice Department lawyers notified the parties to the settlement, including Google, and representatives for the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild, that they were looking into various antitrust issues related to the far-reaching agreement.”

Also some reporting from the Wall Street Journal here, but it’ll cost ya.

My guess is that the search term “google antitrust” is going to get popular over the coming years. Google is like a government: they’re only as good as we make them. As far as books, personally, I’d rather have the Open Book Alliance, and if this investigation is a move towards breaking the weird little collusion between Google and the author’s associations, maybe open scanning and searchability of books still has a chance.


There are other grass roots type operations that have sprung up. KirtasBooks.com for instance, allows a library to make all the volumes in their library available for sale prior to digitization. The book can be purchased as a paperback, hard cover or digital download.

Uhhh… Copyright itself is a monopoly. That’s the whole point. How can you claim that a government-granted monopoly is antitrust? The owners of the copyright are legally allowed to do whatever the hell they want with their copyrighted works. They can make a deal with Google alone, make a deal with a single publisher, give the books away for free, or lock them up forever. If you don’t like this, you should be criticizing the source of the problem.

It may or may not be true that the author’s associations have the legal right to control this issue; keep in mind that in the U.S. and all other countries that I’m aware of copyright is specifically a limited monopoly, and a case can be made that Google’s usage is fair use. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s not too far fetched. Also keep in mind that author’s associations aren’t the same things as authors, and it appears that not all American authors support the trade groups on this issue, which muddies the mandate for those groups to be a legally binding collective bargainer.

But I wasn’t primarily trying point wasn’t that they can’t make the deal they did, it’s that they shouldn’t have bequeathed Google the status of book-scanning monopolist, and consequently it’s a good thing that the federal government is stepping in to test some of the legal questions. If it does turn out that they legally can’t give away that monopoly power, then that will save them from having done what I think is the wrong thing.

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