Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Google Book Search: Those in Favor...

Richard Ekman, President of the Council of Independent Colleges supports Google Book Search in an opinion piece in yesterday's Washington Post.

He makes relevant points about opening up access for the poor and downtrodden, to the geographically limited. He applauds the convenience to undergraduates and researchers. He maintains that it is a good thing for society for previously obscure works to see the light of day. He emphasizes that Google is only showing portions of the work. He predicts that book sales will increase for works that would otherwise have reached the end of their useful life.

Then he wonders why publishers and librarians are at odds when they have such a solid history of trust and collaboration, citing JSTOR and Project Muse as stellar examples of what the communities can do when they work together.

The thing is, JSTOR and Project Muse, and Highwire, and BioOne, (need I go on?) are all fabulous and successful libary/publisher collaborations that respect intellectual property rights. Each of these organizations has people whose job is publisher relations. These talented individuals make the arguments that Dr. Ekman is making, not to the whole world as a justification for copying another's material, but to the owners of the property. They convince publishers to participate. They make a business model available to the publishers for them to accept, reject, or modify through negotiation.

Of course, the scale of Google Book Search makes it hard to fathom individual agreements with publishers, which is basically why Google has an opt-out policy instead of a participation agreement.

It may be true, as Dr. Ekman argues, that publishers have a habit of standing in the way of technological progress. He sites sheet music publishers' fear of the player piano. He could just as easily talked about copy machines, VCRs, Napster, and open access. Publishers all fought these developments, and then eventually found or are finding ways to incorporate these technologies and business models into their own products and services. On their terms. With their own property. Because they have businesses to run, programs to fund, and yes, shareholders to please.

Maybe these factors make a person conservative sometimes. Maybe the free market works for publishing. Maybe there are some books for which there are only a few thousand possible interested readers. Maybe some books deserve to be obscure. Maybe successful publishing businesses can provide royalties to authors to encourage them to contribute to the world's knowledge. Maybe there is a place for Google Book Search. Maybe the owners of the property have right to decide for themselves if Google Book Search is the best option for disseminating their content.

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