Thursday, September 10, 2009

Google to Become Next Library of Alexandria?

The Observer ran an interesting article on Sunday, "I'm booking a seat for Google's battle to buy our literary heritage," by John Naughton. In it, Naughton explores the settlement suit that Google has filed with the state of New York that would "release Google from liability for copyright infringement for all its past and future scanning and searching."

Now, I love GoogleBooks. The fact that I have digital access to books that may be hundreds of years old and out-of-print is both exciting and convenient--but even I have to admit that the company's ballsy approach towards scanning all of the books ever printed (without actually asking anyone's permission first) is a little off-putting. This settlement suit reeks of asking-forgiveness-is-easier-than-asking-permission.

In addition, Naughton neatly summarizes the possible ramifications of the settlement:

"A single commercial company will control much of our cultural heritage. Because it's a settlement based on a class action suit, it will give Google a uniquely privileged position in relation to 'orphan' works - ie, those which are still in copyright but for which no owner can be located - which will not be enjoyed by anyone else. And thirdly, it will hand the power to determine access fees to a pair of unaccountable monopolies - Google and the digital rights registry. So it's deeply anti-competitive."

This is incredibly troubling, to put it lightly. If I could believe that Google had only the best intentions towards our cultural heritage, I might be able to rest easier. The fact that the company (by the very definition of the word 'company') is instead most interested in eventually turning a profit from its endeavor should be troubling to most of us.

All that's left now is to wait and see, I suppose.

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