All the culture in the world for anyone to access! That was the idealistic, if naïve promise we heard when the Internet became mainstream. The reality was different. As it turned out, there was and remains a seeming impasse between the free distribution of art and entertainment, and people and companies' need to get compensated for those things.
The recent ruling regarding Google Books exemplifies how complicated the dynamics of this conflict can be. An American judge has approved Google's right to put the world's books online and make them easy to find. It's a big deal, and on first glance, it at least appears we've moved closer to the ideal of democratizing information. Lest we celebrate prematurely, however, it's worth pondering what it really means to make private companies the main gatekeepers of global culture.
The ruling in question focused on Google Books, a project from the search company that scans books and makes them both searchable and viewable through the company's search engine. The service doesn't make whole titles available, however; instead it only allows searchers to access snippets depending on what they're looking for.
The inevitable objections from authors were that this amounts to an infringement of copyright, one that denies them potential income. If Google is essentially making digital editions of print books, shouldn't authors also be compensated for these new versions of their texts?
From a strictly legal perspective, however, the decision is sensible, and fascinating to boot, too. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin's decision considers turning print books into searchable data sufficiently transformative to qualify as fair use, and also in the public interest. Not only does it make books easy to find in a whole new way – making them easier to buy as well – it also allows for innovative kinds of research, such as those that track trends in language use or ideas over time. Those kinds of possibilities are ideally what the web was supposed to do, and since only parts of books are viewable at a time, readers are still required to purchase or borrow whole books.
In the abstract, then, it's a victory for making information available to the public in a fair, reasonable way – but one that we might celebrate with some trepidation. After all, what has happened is almost as if we've created the world's most incredible library, and then handed the keys over to a private company.
Google's motivation for its Books project is the same as almost all its other endeavours: to place ads next to searches. By tracking searches and linking them to your account, Google have one more way to target you with specific adverts. As long as that dimension of the project keeps working, then Google Books will continue to be useful and safe.
But that means that accessing books through Google carries the same cost as so many free online services: privacy. Worse, Google has something of a history getting rid of services when they no longer align with its business interests. For example, Google Reader, the RSS service that allowed users to read many sites in one place, simply presented too much work for Google to develop further after it shifted to its Google+ social network. As a result, a product used by news junkies everywhere simply disappeared, despite a huge outcry. Who's to say that Google Books, a project primarily of use to academics and librarians, won't suffer some similar fate?
The more important point, though, is that projects that are in the public interest – as Judge Denny Chin says Google Books is – should also be, well, public. The reason is simple: our cultural archives shouldn't lie in the hands of one private company, or the many competitors that will now follow suit in light of this new ruling. Instead, the collected historical representations of various cultures around the world should be run and organized by bodies designed to represent the concerns of everyday people.
That isn't to say that Google shouldn't be able to operate Google Books; it's clear that it is legal. What is wrong, however, is that Google is currently the dominant solution to an increasing problem of organizing and making accessible the world's information. To simply refer to the Google Books victory only as the democratizaion of information is to miss that it was a decision made under the duress of modern circumstances – of the fact that, in the contemporary world, the private is the default mode of providing access to culture using digital technology.
It's that notion which needs to be challenged. Because ultimately, the repository of culture is too important to be left to the ever-changing whims of profit seekers. It must instead belong to those whose primary concerns are the preservation of and access to information as goals unto themselves, not as convenient means to other ends. And although it's true that the Google Books decision was a ginger step in the right direction, it's now time to think about what comes next in making the world's cultural output fairly accessible to all.