Google lawsuit poses dilemma
Special to The Seattle Times
As a longtime dues-paying member of the Authors Guild, I'm party to a lawsuit against Google over its new book-search service called Google Print.
As an author of two books, though, I'm not sure I want to be suing Google. Every writer wants his or her work to be read. But to be read, a work needs to be found. Digital search is fast becoming the de facto way to be found.
The problem is that finding something digitally too easily equates to possessing it.
Google Print, which you can try out now in test form at print.google.com, aims to do for books what Google has done for the Web. You search on a topic or keyword and you're presented with a list of citations from books whose entire text Google has indexed. So far Google has agreements with a handful of libraries to digitize their books.
Here's where things get sticky. The Authors Guild thinks that Google, by indexing books and presenting squibs in searches, violates copyright law. Authors receive no compensation from readers who may find all they want or need in a few excerpts without having to buy the entire book.
It's even possible that persistent searchers could assemble entire books by doing repeated searches. So the same demon of piracy plaguing the entertainment business rears its ugly head in the publishing sector.
So far, Google has shown interest in making money only from search-linked advertising, not from book content. It argues that indexing books and displaying excerpts are legal procedures akin to quotes in reviews and do not require publishers' permission.
That's opened the door for competitors including Yahoo!, Microsoft and Amazon.com to do "responsible" library-search deals that abide by publishers' guidelines.
Amazon is planning to introduce a feature in which users pay "a few cents a page" for online access to selected books.
Led by the Association of American Publishers, which also is suing Google, many publishers argue that even squibs should cost money.
Random House has said it wants 4 cents per excerpt. But just as the "true price" of a downloaded song, TV show or movie is still being debated, reasonable cost (if any) for a book excerpt has yet to be tested.
What if pay-for searches discourage readers from even looking? One further complication: What slice of that 4 cents, if any, will be passed from the publisher to the author?
One thing the controversy has highlighted is the publishing industry's desperate need to climb aboard the 21st century.
"Web users are way out in front of the business model," said Chuck Richard, an analyst at Outsell, which tracks information markets. Readers are migrating to digital in droves, but revenue is mired on the print side, Richard said.
It may be that the only thing worse than Google Print would be no Google Print.
Without some digital equivalent to the concept of a library, a lot of great writing could be lost to the ages. And no one — readers, authors, publishers, Google and its competitors — would benefit from that.
Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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