Thursday, October 05, 2006

Google, Libraries and the Web

The New York Review of Books has an interesting, fair-minded piece on Google and the implications of its book digitization project from Jason Epstein (link courtesy of Pajamas Media):

In 1998 two Stanford graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founded, a search engine that uses a better technology than had previously existed for indexing and retrieving information from the immense miscellany of the World Wide Web and for ranking the Web sites that contain this information according to their relevance to particular queries based on the number of links from the rest of the Internet to a given item. This PageRank system transformed the Web from its original purpose as a scientists' grapevine and from the random babble it soon became a searchable resource providing factual data of variable quality to millions of users. And once again it was the exigencies of commerce that transformed Google itself from an ingenious search technology without a business plan to a hugely profitable enterprise offering a variety of services including e-mail, news, video, maps, and its current, expensive, and utterly heroic, if not quixotic, effort to digitize the public domain contents of the books and other holdings of major libraries. This new program would provide users wherever in the world Internet connections exist access to millions of titles while enabling libraries themselves to serve millions of users without adding a foot of shelf space or incurring a penny of delivery expense.

Spurred by Google's initiative and by the lower costs, higher profits, and immense reach of unmediated digital distribution, book publishers and other copyright holders must at last overcome their historic inertia and agree, like music publishers, to market their proprietary titles in digital form either to be read on line or, more likely, to be printed on demand at point of sale, in either case for a fee equal to the publishers' normal costs and profit and the authors' contractual royalty, thus for the first time in human history creating the theoretical possibility that every book ever printed in whatever language will be available to everyone on earth with access to the Internet.

Epstein does a reasonably good job of addressing the major arguments against Google's digitization project. For those who worry (such as the French) that their own libraries will "suffer under Google's worldwide dominance", he points out that they can always digitize their own materials. For those like myself who question the usability of e-books, Epstein predicts that users will be able to download books to machines that "will automatically print, bind, and trim requested titles on demand that are indistinguishable from factory-made books, to be read as books have been read for centuries."

As for the vociferous copyright objections to the Google project raised by publishers, Epstein insists that they will eventually have no choice but to go along, just as the music industry has acquiesced to digital downloads. This may be correct, but seems a little too dismissive of the issue for my taste. Anyway, read the piece and judge for yourself.


Anonymous davod said...

Imagine being able to get everything you want for free. Who pays the worker who toils in the fields?

5:55 AM  

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