Leggo My Ego

Google Print and the other culture war.

Did you know you can search television? That you can type in “yada yada yada,” and find the exact frames where George Costanza’s girlfriend Marcy said it first? Weird as it may seem, you can do it with one of Google’s little-known products, “Google Video.” It’s part of Google’s not-quite-secret master plan—to make as much of the “offline world” searchable online as humanly possible.

Google is the company that wants to be loved, and it is invariably shocked when people object to what they are doing. That, recently, has amounted to a lot of shock. Earlier this month, the New York-based Author’s Guild filed charges against Google, calling the company both “brazen” and a “massive copyright infringer.” The lawsuit capped a year in which Google has been called “arrogant,” “greedy,” “stretched,” and even, by the French, “un ogre.”

Tough going for a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil.”

What’s going on? Google has become the new ground zero for the “other” culture war. Not the one between Ralph Reed and Timothy Leary, but the war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood; California’s cultural civil war. At stake are two different visions of what might best promote authorship in this country. One side trumpets the culture of authorial exposure, the other urges the culture of authorial control. The relevant questions, respectively, are: Do we think the law should help authors maximize their control over their work? Or are authors best served by exposure—making it easier to find their work? Authors and their advocates have long favored maximal control—but we undergoing a sea-change in our understanding of the author’s interests in both exposure and control.  Unlike, perhaps, the other culture war, this war has real win-win potential, and I hope that years from now we will be shocked to remember that Google’s offline searches were once considered controversial.

What I’ve called the “exposure culture” reflects the philosophy of the Web, in which getting noticed is everything. Web authors link to each other, quote liberally, and sometimes annotate entire articles. E-mailing links to favorite articles and jokes has become as much a part of American work culture as the water cooler. The big sin in exposure culture is not copying, but instead, failure to properly attribute authorship. And at the center of this exposure culture is the almighty search engine. If your site is easy to find on Google, you don’t sue—you celebrate.

It is this dramatic shift—to a culture of exposure—that Google and others want to export to the worlds of books, video, and other large stores of offline information. Consider Google’s widely misunderstood “print” product, which is at the heart of the litigation with the Author’s Guild. Designed to be similar to Google’s Web search, Google Print searches the full text of Google’s library of scanned books. (This page shows the results of a search for “Harriet Miers.”)

There’s a key difference between Google “Print” and the regular Google “Web.” On the Web search, if you find something, you can then just click through to the Web page. But using Google Print is different—you only get the results. To get the “full” result, you actually have to buy the book. This is a common misunderstanding about Google Print—it is a way to search books, not a way to get books for free. It is not, in short, Napster for books.

Where does Google get the books in its search? Most, so far, are sent in by publishers who want to be noticed. But Google last year also began slowly adding to its database scans of some of the largest university libraries in the world (here is an example). That’s the main controversy and also the main attraction. There is a lot of really great and valuable stuff in college libraries, but it is hard and time-consuming to find. Professors are not usually excitable creatures, but I have personally heard squeals at the prospect of full-text searching our libraries. That book searches are great for users and researchers is a no-brainer.

The big question is whether they are good for authors. Many of my friends who are authors are, to be sure, initially very suspicious. “It’s not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied” says Nick Taylor, president of the Author’s Guild. Taylor isn’t suggesting that book search engines are necessarily bad for authors. His objection is that Google Print has deprived authors of their control—their right to decide whether to be in a book search in the first place. The author knows best, the argument goes, and she should be the one who makes all the decisions. If exposure serves the authors’ interest, she can agree to be on Google—otherwise, forget it.

The idea that there is no tradeoff between authorial control and exposure is attractive. But it is also wrong. Individually, more control may always seem appealing—who wouldn’t want more control? But collectively, it can be a disaster. Consider what it would mean, by analogy, if map-makers needed the permission of landowners to create maps. As a property owner, your point would be clear: How can you put my property on your map without my permission? Map-makers, we might say, are clearly exploiting property owners, for profit, when they publish an atlas. And as an individual property owner, you might want more control over how your property appears on a map, and whether it appears at all, as well as the right to demand payment.

But the law would be stupid to give property owners that right. Imagine how terrible maps would be if you had to negotiate with every landowner in the United States to publish the Rand McNally Road Atlas. Maps might still exist, but they’d be expensive and incomplete. Property owners might think they’d individually benefit, but collectively they would lose out—a classic collective action problem. There just wouldn’t really be maps in the sense we think of today.

The critical point is this: Just as maps do not compete with or replace property, neither do book searches replace books. Both are just tools for finding what is otherwise hard to find. And if we really want to have true, comprehensive book searches, we cannot require that every author’s permission be individually sought out.  The book search engines that emerge would be a shadow of the real thing, just as a negotiated map would be a lousy one. Studies suggest that millions of out-of-print books are of unclear copyright status, and Google estimates that relying solely on books provided by publishers and authors will yield only 20% of the books in existence. Not only might it be difficult to get permission. (At least with real property we know who the owners are.) But there are just too many books with owners who are hard or impossible to find—”orphan works.”

Each of those is a hole in the “map,” and a shame.

What’s at stake in a comprehensive book search? In a word, authorial welfare. It is true that once authors are famous and successful, control becomes more important than exposure. But authors don’t know in advance that fame is going to happen. If we imagined a hypothetical bargain between all the nation’s potential and future authors, I think they’d agree to put exposure first—and make book searches permissible. From that original position, a system making it easier to find your work is preferable to the system we have now, namely reviews, word of mouth, and marketing campaigns. And while searches will never displace these means entirely, we have seen that searches can help make eccentric bloggers as popular as newspaper columnists.

While I’ve stressed the tension between exposure and control, it’s not if the ideal is no authorial control.  What we want is the right balance.  The Google Print booksearch, for example, gives copyright owners an “opt-out.”  As on the web, if you don’t want to be searchable, you don’t have to be.  If you’re really embarrassed about your first novel, you can tell Google, and make it unfindable. That’s not enough for some, like the Author’s Guild, who demand that the owner give permission before Google acts, not vice-versa.  But with devices with opt-outs—which may be critical to Google’s fate in court—we can respect authorial wishes without making everyone’s work hard to find.

We must remember, looking to the future, that  books, as a medium, face competition. If books are too hard to find relative to other media, all authors of books lose out, and authors of searchable media like the Web, win. And that’s too bad for those who love books—those who still like a slow read better than the blustery urgency of blogs.

I believe that everyone who considers themselves an author or an author’s advocate should take a deep breath and, at least this time, praise Google Print. In the end, it is just a search, not a replacement product. We readers need help finding what exists, and we authors also need help being found. There is here, as anywhere, such a thing as too much control. It may be time for the offline media to learn something from online media—namely, the virtues of letting go.