A spirited defense of the Google Book Search settlement

You've heard Google's case for digitizing out-of-copyright books and its settlement with publishers and authors. And you've heard the opposition from the newly formed Open Book Alliance. The most spirited take on the out-of-copyright book issue may have come from Bernstein analyst Jeffrey Lindsay.

You've heard Google's case for digitizing out-of-copyright books and its settlement with publishers and authors. And you've heard the opposition from the newly formed Open Book Alliance. The most spirited take on the out-of-copyright book issue may have come from Bernstein analyst Jeffrey Lindsay.

The defense in a nutshell goes like this:

  • Microsoft and Yahoo could have digitized out-of-copyright books and started plans and then bailed;
  • Only Google stayed the course;
  • Authors and publishers aren't getting a bad deal;
  • Digitizing out-of-copyright books is a common good;
  • If Google didn't do it nobody would have;
  • And the opposition should stop whining about their failure to follow-through.

Lindsay's defense is a good read and even though I'm squeamish about having one company be the uber library I must admit that the analyst has a point---a few of them even.

The defense comes as both sides of the Google Book Settlement debate jockey for position ahead of an Oct. 7 "fairness hearing" in U.S. District Court. Also see: Open Book Alliances opens up assault on Google's book settlement

Lindsay kicks off the defense with this:

Google has just done something rather wonderful. It is on the verge of an astonishing achievement that will benefit the U.S. for generations, bridging a major part of the digital divide and giving the country a global lead in a key area – scholarship. Its reward: a lawsuit, public criticism from the hastily reconstituted and Orwellian-named "Open Book Alliance" (Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon) and scrutiny by the Justice Department. Imagine what might have happened had they had tried to destroy a competitor's business model by bundling its product into an operating system or attempted to corner the e-book market by making a proprietary closed system to force users to buy online books only form them.

With that opener it's obvious where Lindsay is going to come down on the debate.

His big point is that it's unclear whether the Open Book Alliance is about "sour grapes or genuine concern." He also points out that it's notable that Amazon isn't yapping too loud. Why? Amazon could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Google's efforts. And then Lindsay points out the following:

The truth is that both Microsoft and Yahoo! tried to do exactly what Google has just done – digitize all books in print but both abandoned their initiatives in 2006. According to a 2006 Microsoft Blog Post from Satya Nadella (then SVP for search) announcing that Live Search Books and Live Search Academic were to be taken down: We recognize that this decision comes as disappointing news to our partners, the publishing and academic communities, and Live Search users.

That 2006 blog post appears to have been ported over to Bing. Nevertheless, everything else matches. You can read that post here.

Lindsay adds:

Only Google stayed the course and so now only Google has the world's largest digital book archive. So what is it going to do that is so terrible now that it has this archive? According to Google it is simply going to let people search it for free and if they want to buy the books direct them to a range of other sellers – hardly cornering much of the value of book digitization.

Throughout Lindsay's defense of Google he points out interesting reads---including a blog called E-Reads by Richard Curtis. Curtis pans the attack on the Google book settlement in an Aug. 19 entry.

Lindsay does acknowledge that Google's treatment of 3 million to 5 million orphan books can be an issue. However, these books are usually housed only in major university libraries---the types most of the country can't get to. Google's proposal to create a book rights registry would fix that problem.

As for Google's lack of competition Lindsay walks a line:

Despite the existence of a number of initiatives to digitize books, the best known probably being Project Gutenberg, which has scanned upward of 28,000 books according to Wikipedia, Microsoft and Yahoo! dropped out and Amazon never saw the need to digitize the world's books other than with its closed system reading device – the Kindle (retail price $299 and $489). For the digitized archive, however, there is no significant competitor to keep Google honest in terms of pricing and access terms in the future. Many academics cite the example of Academic Journals which most institutions are obliged to buy.

Consolidation of publishers has concentrated pricing power in the hands of a few and they have used this to extract what many academics feel is excessive pricing. To date Google is behaving in a much more altruistic way than many publishers in the academic environment but there remains the question as to what is Google's motivation to keep driving down the cost of access to knowledge in the future? Many argue that this can only be remedied by some sort of regulatory oversight as there is little upside for any player to replicate Google's database at this stage.

Overall though, Lindsay concludes that the public good of Google's book search efforts outweigh the pitfalls. Simply put, Google should be able to move ahead with its book settlement and implement its search efforts. Good regulation of the repository can keep Google in line---once the repository is created.

More reading on the subject: