As a literary nerd by training and a computer nerd by profession, I confess to feeling very conflicted about the ongoing controversy over the Google Book Search project.
For those of you out of the know, Google has been scanning and digitizing books of all sorts for almost five years now.
You can find the results at books.google.com.
That site allows internet users to view snippets of works under copyright, or to read through large portions of copyrighted books authorized by the copyright holders, or actually download books that are already in the public domain.
As of this last October, Google claimed to have more than 10 million books scanned and viewable, with more than a million of them freely downloadable.
To give you an idea of how big an achievement this is, consider that the largest single library in the world – the United States Library of Congress – currently has just over 21 million catalogued books.
That means Google has more than half caught up with the Library of Congress, in the short span of just five years.
Its closest competitor in terms of digital books is probably Microsoft’s now-defunct Live Search Books project, which closed shop in the spring of 2008, with something like 1 million downloadable, public domain books available.
Google has accomplished this with some extremely high technology scanning and optical character recognition technology, and by partnering with some of the largest and most distinguished libraries in the world – Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, for instance.
The publically proclaimed intent of this effort, as announced on Google’s own site, is promising enough: “Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalogue of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.”
Wonderful and heady stuff, that, and I confess that I have become a shameless addict to books.google.com, both for serious educational purposes, and for pure, aimless fun.
Just this week, I downloaded the complete dramatic works of the 17th Century English playwright, John Webster – a writer hard to find in bookstores, but whose best plays can stand up to comparison even with the mature Shakespeare.
I also passed several pleasurable hours browsing through old copies of Life Magazine from 1947, amused by the ads for big, bulky, black and white TV’s promising “the stars up close,” and ad after ad for women’s nylons – the real things having become available at last, I guess, after the years of wartime austerity.
I even got to see, in the June 2, 1947 issue, an ad from Trans World Airline, announcing the first advent of airline radar on all their flights, courtesy of “Howard Hughes and the Electronic Department of Hughes Aircraft Co.”
All these are both mindful and mindless pleasures, but I am also aware that they come at a price.
The provider of all this information and trivia is not a non-profit organization like the volunteers of the Gutenberg project, nor a publicly financed service like my local library, but a very-much-for-profit company.
Whatever its publicly avowed good intentions, this company is finally about turning my attention into money for its stock holders, and about cornering the market on all this wonderful stuff that draws that attention.
It is not for nothing that the United States government, and members of the European Union, have expressed strong reservations about allowing all this wonderful material to fall into the hands of a single, commercialy driven company that already enjoys a worrisome dominance in the information search and retrieval market.
It was only last Friday – Friday the 13th, ominously enough – that Google and its partners in the library project submitted to the US Justice Department their revised proposal for how the public interest in copyright protection and fair remuneration for authors and publishers can be accommodated in their plan.
It is too early to know, yet, what the US Justice Department will have to say about this proposal, but the consequences of what that body decides in this matter are of major importance not only to US citizens, but to the world at large.
A decision too negative about the proposed project could seriously derail what may be one of the most culturally important developments in our intellectual history since they built the library in Alexandria.
On the other hand, a decision too subservient to the interests of Google and its partners could turn an invaluable cultural asset into a commodity offered up for sale at the whim price demanded by an uncontrolled monopoly.
What the Google Book Search project has developed so far is an impressive achievement; but if it is not properly controlled and moulded in the best interests of the public, it could turn into a tragically lost opportunity.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.