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The saga of Google books

The saga of Google books
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First Published: Tue, Apr 05 2011. 08 50 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Apr 05 2011. 08 50 PM IST
The world is a better place because of Google. Without the company’s search engine much of the Internet’s labyrinthine corridors of information and data would be inaccessible to many. Sure, there are other search engines. But none has made searching and cataloguing as easy or intuitive as Google.
Indeed Google’s recent paucity of success with new products might make it look like a one- trick pony. But what a trick it is.
But now a New York judge has all but terminated one of Google’s most high-profile projects.
Google Books was supposed to do to books what the company had already done to the Internet. The idea was to enable users to search through millions of old and new books irrespective of where these books were and what condition they were in. Google shouldered the technological and financial burden of scanning entire libraries. Users sitting in Ranchi, for instance, could then trawl through books owned by an American university library in Alaska.
It was a modern reincarnation of the great ancient library in Alexandria. Freely accessible information for all.
In return, Google asked for exclusive rights to this database of scanned images. And a monopoly on the advertising that would be displayed on the results pages.
Previously Google’s dream had run into opposition from authors and copyright holders. Eventually Google signed a series of settlements that gave authors greater flexibility and the ability to opt out of the scheme.
Last week Judge Denny Chin threw out this settlement saying that it was “not fair, adequate and reasonable”. Copyright hawks were thrilled. But anyone who has any interest in realizing the potential of the Internet will be disappointed.
The problem here is not what Google wanted to do, but how it went about doing it. Behind the shield of legal allowances and ambiguities Google bullied authors and copyright holders into settling. Also the optional opt-out scheme is loaded in favour of the company.
Let us hope that Google comes back with a new scheme that is more sensitive of copyright demands but remains cognizant of the ultimate aim. An internationally accessible storehouse of information is a good thing. Google needs to figure out how to do it without being evil.
What should Google do to revive the books project? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Apr 05 2011. 08 50 PM IST