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Google and books

March 2009


I’m generally a fan of Google, and not just for the search engine; they have loads of gadgets that are worth a look.  For example, I use the Bookmarks widget ( all the time.

However, I am wondering if they are getting just a bit too big for their boots.  What has driven this suspicion from the back of my mind, where it sits whenever I think about any gigantic company, to the front, has been their attempt to control the online written word, through Google Book Search.

The trouble is, it all seems like such a good idea.  For a few years, Google has been working away on a project ( to create a massive online library of books.  They record a picture (a “scan”) of each page; then the system reads and indexes the whole book, so that you can search the text.  At the moment, they have over seven million books on the system and you can search the lot in a click. 

If the book is out of copyright, you're usually able to download a copy.  If it is not in the public domain, you'll be able to see an extract of the book, and probably a link to buying a copy or paying to download one.

So far so good.  Not that most of us want to read a book on a computer; not until someone invents an electronic book reader that works, anyway.  But the very thought  that there might one day exist a digitized and indexed library of all books, especially out of print books, is something to set reading hearts aflutter.

But you can probably imagine what the publishers of books feel about this.  If you can get an electronic copy of a book for nothing, or read it on Google, why buy one?  It’s not likely to do much to help second hand booksellers, either.

So, just as the music industry did when faced with a similar threat, the American publishers went to law.  The case dragged on, but late last year they reached a settlement (in America).  Under this agreement, not only will Google be free to continue scanning everything it can get its paws on, it will be allowed to sell individual e-books and charge for access to its entire collection.  The majority of the revenue will go back to copyright owners, which is fine, of course, especially for writers of out of print books.  In fact, books would effectively cease to be out of print, for all practical purposes.  Excellent.

However, the agreement also provides that if anyone else wants to do a better deal with the Publishers, Google have to be offered the same terms.  So even if someone else comes up with an improved technology to make reading online easier, it’s hardly worth their while even starting, because of the built in price protection clause Google has.  They can never be out priced.

I’m certainly not against this project; it has the makings of a magnificent undertaking, especially for saving out of print books.

It’s this agreement they’ve struck in America that makes me nervous; it has the whiff of a cartel about it, and I’m rather afraid that the American publishers have given Google far more power than accountability.  As The British Booksellers Association, which is fully expecting Google to turn its attention to the UK market shortly, said  “A situation where competition is removed from the market place by placing the keys in the hands of one company cannot, ultimately, be good for the consumer.” 

I can only agree.