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Misplaced concern over Google book scans

Why is there such a furor - within some circles - over Google scanning books? Frankly the entire thing seems just a little bit silly. By scanning out-of-copyright works and putting them on the web, a vast resource suddenly becomes infinitely more available. Any kid (or adult) anywhere suddenly has access to vast libraries that would have been out of reach before. This is a wonderful thing!

Yes, Google is going to put small quiet ads next to the text of the books. The Google folks make an effort not to be excessive or annoying. So ... I get all works (at least the older ones) from all the major libraries of the world (eventually) accessible from anywhere I can get an Internet connection? There is no possible way this can be a bad thing! Yes, there is the "cost" of the small column of associated text ads. That is a very small cost for a pretty fantastic service.

MoorishGirl: Google's Manifest Destiny ... publisher Nigel Newton (the chief executive at Bloomsbury) rants against Google's plans to digitize out-of-copyright works and library materials, all the better to sell you those darn ads. Rightfully, I think, he calls those plans a "land-grab" ...

First off, there is no possible way this can be a "land grab". Use of the term assumes exclusive ownership - and this can never be true. Google can copy the content of all the libraries of the world, and the libraries still contain exactly as much material as before. Anyone else can (and likely will) make another copy and offer a similar service under different terms.

Google's literary land-grab Nigel Newton is chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. This is an edited version of a speech given on Thursday to the Guardian Review's World Book Day forum.

Note that publishing companies stand to lose some parts of their business. The money they make out of publishing out-of-copyright works will largely go away. Access to older superior works will diminish the market for similar newer works. This is a good thing for consumers and society, but not a good thing for publishers.

There are two aspects to this land-grab. The first involves scanning out-of-copyright work, provided by the great libraries, and surrounding it with such advertising. That's not illegal, though it is of cultural concern.

So ... access with advertising is worse than no access? In the physical world would an ad on the table next to a book diminish the "cultural" value of the contents of the book? Ordinary folk are deluged with much more intrusive advertising every day, and seem to cope.

(The funny thing at this point is the original article contains a large intrusive ad embedded in the text. Hopefully the irony is not lost.)

The second part of Google's literary predations, in the case of American libraries, involves scanning in-copyright works - for the purpose of publication - without direct prior permission of the copyright holder. That is to say, the author or his or her estate. Google's decision to scan first and ask permission later with copyrighted works is playing fast and loose.

This is simple pragmatics. It matters not in the slightest if Google scans copyrighted works - as long as the scans are not made publically available. When doing mass-scanning you want to do it in the most efficient manner possible. What matters is if Google distributes the copied materials without permission - and so far as I can tell, this they will not do. The end result is that copyrighted works will only be distributed with permission - and that is all that matters.

Publishers also have serious responsibilities in this matter. [...] No one will write much in future if they don't receive money for it because books are suddenly free on the net.

Publishers put words on paper, then distribute the paper. Publishers exist because the means for putting words on paper require capital. Publishers exist because they built up human networks to distribute books. What happens to publishers when works are less often distributed on paper, and more often distributed more directly over the web? That future is coming, and must scare the Dickens out of publishers ... which makes the next statement rather predictable.

Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio.

As a random guess - it would be ok for "publishers" to scan out-of-copyright works, but not Google? Right.

University and copyright libraries also have serious responsibilities in their dealings with Google. I believe that libraries such as the Bodleian and Harvard may have misinterpreted the missions with which their universities have entrusted them in handing over part of their collections for scanning.

The role of libraries is to make information (once primarily in books) more available - without fee (or only very minor fees). Profit is not a part of their mission.

They may also have thrown away the biggest commercial opportunity in the history of their academic institutions by regarding content as somehow free (though they do get their own copy of the digital file).

A "publisher" is concerned with commercial opportunities, a library should not.

Yes, scanning a huge collection overnight is a huge expense but it does not have to happen overnight. The collections were written over two millennia; the online solution might decently take a long time.

Yes, please slow down Google - the publishers would like to make money just as in the past. Nevermind the fact this is a great benefit to society as a whole - and for the entire world. Nevermind that "publishers" were created as an artifact of technology (the printing press) and are doomed to be diminished by a change in technology (the web).

Doubtless you have guessed by now my sympathy for publishers is limited.

As a kid I had access to a decent but small local library, and had little money to buy books. In the near future a kid in the same situation will have access to the bulk of the contents of the world's greatest libraries. This is an astounding and wonderful thing! The libraries opening their stacks to Google get this.

By comparison the fact that publishers as a whole will make less money is of no importance.