A Little Perspective On Google Book Search

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The rush to digitize the contents of five huge libraries could end up having a crushing impact on a small British publisher.

In an editorial appearing in the Times Online, William Rees-Mogg wrote about the prospect of Google devouring works by authors that his publishing firm produces and sells to libraries.

Rees-Mogg’s firm, Pickering and Chatto, may be considered the definition of the venerable 19th Century publishing house. The names that emerge from the firm’s backlist include Marlowe and Shelley, Dafoe and Wollenscroft.

“We publish works of scholarship that larger publishers, with higher overheads, find uneconomic. More than half our annual sales come from our back list. This sturdy, early 19th-century business model is now threatened by a giant 21st-century business model, the omnivorous Google,” Rees-Mogg wrote.

The model Google threatens sells books to 2,000 major universities worldwide. One library is Harvard, which is one of the participants in Google’s Book Search project. Google’s practice of scanning in-copyright books from libraries concerned Rees-Mogg the most:

The question concerns books that are still in copyright and will remain so for 70 years or more. If Google can scan these books, without the permission of the publisher, and include them in its database, then most libraries will not need to buy them. And if librarians do not buy them, they cannot be published. The whole world of learning will be damaged, and academic publishing will cease to be a viable business.

Rees-Mogg noted how a payment structure for viewing copyrighted materials could be the best compromise. Google and the publisher would share the revenue. Google, however, has long claimed that its scanning of books falls under the same type of fair use that allows it to index web sites.

Google probably sees the fees proposed by Random House as listed in Rees-Mogg’s op-ed as an unwanted limitation on exposing books to people and creating demand for them. With two lawsuits underway about the Book Search project, the courts will determine whether or not Google will be able to continue its plans.

Only then will we know if the creation of a vast electronic library has a detrimental impact on publishers like Pickering and Chatto, or a beneficial one where demand for published books gets created instead of destroyed.

David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business. Email him here.

A Little Perspective On Google Book Search
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