Google has empowered ordinary citizens beyond anything once thought possible. Thanks to Google, you can view your home from space, track flu outbreaks around the country, or figure out traffic congestion along your commute route, all instantaneously and without spending a single dime. And the company's motto, "Don't Be Evil," underscores an undeniable civic-mindedness. Its nonprofit arm, Google.org, invests in green electricity start-ups. Goats graze the company's lawns to reduce its carbon footprint. And yet, despite the company's best efforts, there's just something about Google that gives some people the heebie-jeebies.
There's its history of collaborating with repressive Chinese authorities, of course. There's its habit of tracking what you search for and storing the data for months, or photographing citizens walking the streets and posting the pictures on its Street View site. Mostly, however, there's its sheer size and power. Google is sitting on $19 billion in cash. Its business model is predicated upon ensuring that you come to rely upon it for almost everything you do online. Google's success has forever changed the media, among other industries. When Gmail and Google Docs crash, as they have numerous times in the last two years, businesses around the world grind to a halt. Critics of the company worry that no single entity should have that much influence over our lives.
Five years ago, Google began one of the most ambitious projects in the history of human endeavor. Working with universities around the world, including UC Berkeley, the company systematically scanned and digitally archived millions of books. Today, it has come remarkably close to preserving and organizing every single idea, fact, calumny, sonnet, and law human beings have ever committed to print in English. "Google Book Search was launched as part of our mission to take the world's information, organize it, and make it universally accessible," says company spokeswoman Jennie Johnson. "Most of the world's information is not online. It's offline, in books, on shelves. Google Books began as a project to make books as discoverable as the world is today."
It's a remarkable resource, one that could make the sum total of the world's knowledge immediately available to the most isolated researcher or the simply curious. And yet ...
Twelve months ago, three East Bay academics slowly began to grow uncomfortable with what Google was doing. The more they looked into the details of the Google Books project, the more they began to conclude that the country could not afford to let Google control humanity's knowledge the way it intended to. For their own individual reasons, in their own distinctive ways, these critics — Peter Brantley, Pamela Samuelson, and linguist Geoff Nunberg — set out to stop the project, or at least fundamentally change the way it was being carried out.
Last month, they watched as the Google Books project stalled in its tracks. The Authors Guild and a group of publishers had sued Google for copyright infringement, and the three parties had worked out a settlement. As soon as a federal judge approved the settlement, the project could proceed. But in September, the Justice Department issued a key opinion arguing that elements of this settlement violated the country's antitrust laws, seriously jeopardizing its chances of passing muster in federal court. Google is now reworking its deal with authors and publishers, and its grand scheme will now almost surely be impossible without sweeping changes.
It's impossible to know just how much Brantley, Samuelson, and Nunberg influenced the Justice Department's opinion. But these three academics forged a powerful coalition out of the country's academics, research libraries, consumer and privacy groups, as well as Google rivals Microsoft and Amazon.com. Along the way, they helped create a new skepticism toward Google's once-pristine brand. And they sparked a national conversation about one of our most interesting and central questions: what is a free society obliged to do with its written words?
Google is, first and foremost, a search engine. And when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and CEO Eric Schmidt set out to digitize the contents of some of the English-speaking world's greatest libraries, they apparently did so to increase the universe of knowledge their bots could scan, chop into discrete, digestible snippets, and present to their users, along with the usual targeted text ads. If along the way, entire libraries were digitally preserved, that could only benefit the world, right?
At least, that's what the company's library partners thought. In 2004, Google got permission from Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library system to archive their stacks. The University of California and other libraries later joined the project, and today, Google has digitally preserved a remarkable ten million tomes in its system.
The plan was simple: rather than display substantial sections of a book, which would clearly violate copyright law, Google would only display a paragraph or two, in direct response to a search query. The company's lawyers had every reason to imagine that this was permissible under the legal doctrine known as "fair use," which protects the public's right to quote or excerpt copyrighted works in academic papers, news reports, legislative or judicial proceedings, and parody. But the Authors Guild disagreed. In 2005, the Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google, arguing that merely scanning the entire work constituted copyright infringement.
Google's leaders still feel indignant that this grand humanitarian gesture has cost them so much. "We don't think we should be sued in the first place," Eric Schmidt recently told search engine guru Danny Sullivan. "I'm happy to be criticized. But the fact of the matter is, we didn't sue them. They sued us."
But as the years passed, and the lawsuit traveled through the meat-grinder of settlement negotiations, Google's mission began to change. By the time the three parties finalized their deal, Google no longer would merely display snippets of works. The company would now be authorized to sell online access to scanned books in their entirety. And libraries and universities could buy subscriptions to the entire catalogue. Proceeds from the sale would be divided between Google and the plaintiffs, and a "book rights registry" would be set up to hold money on behalf of the copyright holders. Suddenly, Google was a crude sort of bookseller.
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