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Google Books: Evil or Not? December 20, 2006

Posted by publicpolitics in Coporate Policies, Information policy, Libraries, Technology.
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Already facing a legal challenge for alleged copyright infringement,
Google’s crusade to build a digital library has triggered a
philosophical debate with an alternative project promising better
online access to the world’s books, art and historical documents.


Michael Liedtke, AP

Google has made tremendous inroads in scanning books from several libraries, including Harvard and the University of California. Google will not say how many books it has scanned so far, but admits to scanning about 3,000 books per day. The problem, according to a new coalition called the Open Content Alliance, is that Google wants the books to appear only on Google’s search engine. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has just awarded the Internet Archive, a leading member of the Open Content Alliance, a $1 million dollar grant to create digital copies of items owned by the Boston Public Library, the Getty Research Institute, and the Johns Hopkins University Library. Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle has been critical of Google’s restrictions on scanned books, and the grant represents the culmination of efforts to call attention to the situation.

Google says that its scanning arrangements are a fair deal because agreements with providers do not restrict them from entering into other digitizing arrangements. And to make matters more complicated, Microsoft and Yahoo are both members of the OCA, and Microsoft recently launched its own scanning initiative, marked by its own exclusivity deal.

The OCA ‘s Kahle is disappointed by Microsoft’s move, but he is more worried about the aggregate power of Google, as well he might be. Google, as its present corporate arrangements with publishers show, is not entirely evil, but it does represent an accumulated clout that will probably outlast the ideals of its founders. An organization such as the OCA, as long as it plays no favorites, is better placed to ensure the future availability of a world wide library than is any corporate entity simply because at the end of the day, a corporate entity is strictly responsible only to share holders, while an alliance of publishers and librarians can hold and maintain a less restrictive charter. In view of Microsoft’s creation of its own exclusive book search, the company’s participation in the OCA is a kind of PR exercise at best.

And of course, there are dozens of other digitizing projects that have been well underway for years: the most important and the most open of these is Project Gutenberg, alibrary of free e-books with expired copyrights. Perhaps the ultimate answer is to divide and conquer, but in that scenario the corporate behemoths will eventually control the information, with truly open source projects picking up the remnants. It is true that politics remains too important to be left to politicians,and it is probably true that the future world library is too important to be left in the hands of one or two corporations, even if they aren’t evil.

Tags: livraries | digitizing | Project Gutenberg | Open Content Alliiance | Kahle | SCANNING | books | Yale | Yahoo | Microsoft | Harvard | Google

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