Is Google Making the Celera Mistake?

Celera was the company founded by Craig Venter, and funded by Perkin Elmer, which played a large part in sequencing the human genome and was hoping to make a massively profitable business out of selling subscriptions to genome databases. The business plan unravelled within a year or two of the publication of the first human genome. With hindsight, the opponents of Celera were right. Science is making and will make much greater progress with open data sets.

Here are some reaons for thinking that Google will be making the same sort of mistake as Celera if it pursues the business model outlined in its pending settlement with the AAP and the Author’s Guild:

  1. The task and the cost of curating the data cannot be separated from the responsibility and the expertise of those who generate it. Celera’s hope for massive private value in its private databases was undermined by the preference for publicly funded research to go its own sweet way into the public arena. Does Google really want to manage and control, assume the responsibility for all those who write books and how they can be distributed? Does Google and the Books Right Registry really think that Authors want their activities to be regulated in this fashion?
  2. Genomic databases are extraordinarily valuable, it does not follow that you can sell them as big ticket items. Is there a massive market out there for closed subscription databases to millions of books sold to institutions? Celera did make some sales of its promised proprietary databases, but it was never believable that there was available funding to support a market for billions of dollars per annum on genomic databases. Those chimerical numbers were needed to support the astronomical market cap Celera briefly touched. Google may not have such sky expectations of its digital library subscription revenues, but I wonder how well the expectations that it does have, match with the funding currently available to the public library system and educational institutions?
  3. PE was very good at building automated sequencing systems and selling them to researchers. Very, very good. It turned out to be not nearly so good at building a business to manage, curate and exploit genome databases that would be licensed to scientists and researchers. Such different activities do not mix, and your customers are likely to suspect a conflict of interest, and this is one reason why Celera was spun-out from Perkin Elmer. Google is very good, six times “very good” at managing search-sensitive advertising and large scale intentional databases drawn from web use. Are Google’s customers going to be happy working with a system in which their reading attention, and referential record is always being calibrated and used to influence their buying pattern and subscription budget?
  4. Hubris. Almost certainly in the case of Perkin Elmer, but they did have the sense to pull back. With Google it is hard to say….. hubris and ambition are sometimes confused, or mistaken, the one for the other.

There are plenty of differences between these two situations. Nor am I suggesting that all literary copyrights should be put into the public domain (nor indeed should all genomic data be treated as public). Differences and contrasts abound, but Eric Schmidt should put Sulston and Ferry’s book The Common Thread on his summer reading list.

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One thought on “Is Google Making the Celera Mistake?

  1. Very interesting analysis, thanks for posting. Google is getting all the press, but for public domain books the Open Content Alliance digitized works will be more useful – and hence more used.

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