Bullish on Books Blog

Think Google Books is Evil? Get 'Inside Larry And Sergey's Brain'


I don't know if you can actually pity the Google Guys - especially after Jim Cramer said he thinks the stock is "too cheap" and says it should skyrocket another $100 to become a $600 a share company. But the guys who promised to "do no evil' are coming under fire from all sides: authors, publishers, the Justice Department and now fellow C-Suiters are throwing  some grenades.

Yahoo's! new boss, Carol Bartz went off on Google when she was asked if the media are "too obsessed with change at Yahoo." The San Francisco Chroniclereports Bartz replied, "When you get outside of New York City and Silicon Valley, everybody loves Yahoo ... I mean, why are you cynical about us? Be cynical about frickin' Google. Leave us alone."

"Frickin' Google."Yikes!

But not everyone is ready to tar and feather them. Some say all the rage against the Google Guys has nothing to do with copyright issues, or privacy, or the art of the word - rather, it's all about the (you know where I'm going here) - it's all about the Moolah, the Benjamins, the MONEY.

This is a guest blog written by Richard Brandt, journalist and author of, INSIDE LARRY AND SERGEY's BRAIN.

Richard Brandt
Richard Brandt

Google Books program – What's the beef?, by Richard Brandt

Over the past few years, opposition to Google's plan to scan out-of-print books, allowing people to search through them or see entire copies, has gathered so much opposition that you'd think the company was proposing to drown kittens for profit.

Since Google reached an agreementwith the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers last year, the U.S. Justice Department and European regulators have expressed concerns and are investigating the terms of the deal. Attorneys general from at least five states have filed objections. The head of the Library of Congress has objected, as have several university professors and some libraries. An organization called the Open Book Alliance, organized by lawyer Gary Reback and whose members include Microsoft, Amazon.com, Yahoo and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, was formed just to oppose Google on the issue. Reback was an attorney influential in getting restrictions on Microsoft's alleged monopoly several years ago.

Google Headquarters

Let's step back a moment and look at what Google is trying to do.

It first proposed digitizing books in 2003. Nobody objects to in-print books, where revenues may be shared with copyright holders or methods set up to let them opt out. Neither is there a problem with digitizing books no longer under copyright – which only includes books over a hundred years old.

The long-standing problem has been millions of books that are no longer in print but may still be under copyright. Nobody buys these books any more, simply because they cannot be found anywhere but in libraries and used book stores.

Even Amazon.com can't get the vast majority of them. Worse, in the vast majority of cases, nobody knows who owns the copyrights anymore. Google proposed letting anyone who owned a copyright to come forward and opt out of the program. But publishers wanted Google to spend millions of dollars to find the copyright owners, a laborious process that could never be completely successful.

The real stumbling block has been that book publishers have been afraid that Google will make money off these books and they won't – although they would never be able to make any money without Google Book Search or a similar project either. So they filed suit, but reached a settlement with Google in October 2008.

In that settlement, Google agreed to create a not-for-profit Books Rights Registry that would try to find copyright holders, maintain a listing of their rights, and allow them to opt in or out. It would also put $125 million into a fund that would be used to compensate authors and publishers for any money Google receives, likely to mostly be from advertising. Google CEO Eric Schmidt told me that he thought that deal was a “no brainer” and would be easily acceptable to all parties.

But now Google is being accused of setting up a monopoly, despite the fact that anyone else who wants to spend millions of dollars scanning books and reaching a similar deal with publishers – such as Microsoft, Amazon.com and Yahoo – has every right to do so.

Regulators are concerned that the deal would allow Google and publishers to set prices without competition. Libraries are concerned about getting free access to the books and the Registry. Privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are worried about Google having knowledge of what books people are looking at, although they don't seem to mind the amount of information Amazon.com collects on book searchers and buyers.

Are these fair criticisms?

Lawyer Reback says that Google has a monopoly on search and that, like Microsoft a decade ago, it is using that monopoly to gain unfair advantage over other products, in this case, out-of-print books. But the issue remains that, without such a deal, nobody would have access to these books. Authors get payments that they could never have received otherwise. As a book author, I can assure you that the vast majority of books never provide any revenues beyond the advance they got for writing the book before it is ever published.

The real opposition is that the companies that compete with Google don't want the competition from Google Book Search, and don't want to pay to get in the game, as Google has. Since the deal between Google and the publishers is not exclusive - the usual criterion for determining a monopoly violation—the monopoly complaints are not worth the paper they're printed on.

I happen to be strongly in favor of the settlement. Right now the Justice Department is trying to reach a compromise with Google that addresses the concerns. Let's hope that is successful, although even that is not likely to stop the complaints and lawsuits. But, in the end, the Google Books project will have one overwhelming effect if it is allowed to go through: Dramatically increasing the amount of knowledge available to the world. What's wrong with that?

Google V. The World


Inside Larry & Sergey's Brain
Inside Larry & Sergey's Brain

Richard L. Brandt is a journalist with over 20 years’ experience covering science, technology and business.

He is the author of, INSIDE LARRY AND SERGEY's BRAIN (Portfolio, September, 2009).

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