Google Book Search is it Rudderless?

Some librarians are complaining that they have been used by Google (hat tip to David Rothman) and they worry that Google is now losing interest in the library market. Google certainly seems to have backed away from publishers (no longer attending the main trade fairs, not making a concerted pitch towards them). So is the Google Book Search project losing its direction? Here are three guesses about that:

  1. Google has made tremendous progress with the data capture project. There are no public aggregate statistics, but Michigan passed the 1m books target earlier this year, so I would estimate that Google Book Search has over 4 million titles contributed by the libraries, plus perhaps 1 million from publishers (Springer will have over 30,000 now). (If anyone has any good data on this please add as a comment). So in this sense Google Book Search is working very well as a powerful data-service, but no one at Google has a good idea about how to drive the books operation as a commercial service. Text-driven advertising is not going to monetise most of the books in the collection. GBS is a computer science project which is working really well but it is hard to see how it can become a pay-for-itself proposition. I think this is why Microsoft pulled out of its ‘shadow Google Book Search’ play, a month ago. It didnt see the point of being second best at something which might not have a commercial justification even if they were ‘first best’. Microsoft doesnt believe in fundamental computer science engineering the way that Google does. The GBS project is not losing its direction, it was just a ‘moon shot’ with a long time to come to fruition. Come back in 10 years time. By then the computer science on handling a 50 million volume text database will be part-done. Google is not being slow or neglecting anybody. Its just a huge project.
  2. Google is waiting until the legal mess around the status of in copyright titles is cleared up before putting a clear commercial direction on the Google Book Search service. So GBS is not so much rudderless as in ‘legal limbo’. The direction will be resolved as part of a settlement with the publishers and authors and this settlement will give Google a big head start in providing a commercial book service, sanctioned by the publishers. Peter Brantley is worried that this may be where we are. But I am not convinced, because I suspect that Google is more interested in prolonging and delaying the legal issues than it is in reaching a settlement. Google gains by prolonging the dispute, because its hard to negotiate what it wants, and in the end technology will ‘prise open’ the copyright position that publishers (and agents) will never agree to surrendering. Publishers and ‘old fashioned’ authors and agents want to maintain the requirement that texts may only be copied with explicit permission. Google doesn’t think like that and takes the view that texts like any physical object can be digitised, and that the digital object can be computed without permission, (though accepting that secondary commercial exploitation may need explicit permission). So Google is not expecting a legal victory, or a negotiated agreement anytime soon. If we think that the Google Book Search project is all about delivering books in the largest possible numbers, in the best possible format, to the greatest number of human readers, they had better get on and settle the disputes and start rolling out the commercial services before Amazon has walked off with all the commercial advantage using its Kindle. Google is just being too slow to get commercial because of legal hassles.
  3. Finally, there is the possibility that the Google project really is ‘rudderless’ and they would have been better off taking on board explicit bibliographic and librarianship skills from the begining and they they can still do this and need to change tack in order to do so. They would need to re-orient and declare open some of their proprietary positions, perhaps they could co-opt Brewster Kahle, but an ‘open source’ revision to their project might have some benefits. Having a complete input from librarians and using the objective of creating a free open library of all no-longer-in-copyright material would have been a worthy target for Google and perhaps they will revert to operating in this way, if they decide that the legal obstacles to a fully commercial service of the kind that they are building are perhaps too fraught and tricky for them. Google Book Search is somewhat rudderless, because they have not defined the appropriate goal for their massive enterprise.

I tend to alternate between (1) and (3), but that may mean that I am wrong about (2) also. It could be that Google is well advanced with plans for a commercial version of Google Book Search and will launch a ‘pay per view’ implementation next week. Who knows?

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