You know the end is near for the long-running Google litigation when the books start coming out. In this case, the book inquestion is an e-book. At the end of 2012, GigaOM published staff reporter Jeff John Roberts's The Battle for the Books: Inside Google's Gambit to Create the World's Biggest Library. PW recently caught up with Roberts to get his take on the story behind the lawsuits.
What motivated Google to start scanning books. What’s your theory?
Well, of course, there is the data, because the more you search, the more Google knows about you. However, I think Google is sometimes painted as overly mercenary or rapacious. The reality is there’s a good bit of idealism in there. When [Google founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin began to scan, they were men in their early 20s, the children of academics, and they were honestly excited about what digitization offered in terms of research, and the sharing of literature and knowledge.
Do you think this needed to end up in litigation?
Well, this is America—everything needs to be worked out by litigation! But, remember, when this all started we were still at the peak of the Napster litigation and music sharing, and all of the content industries were still freaking out and suing anything that disturbed them. So it was entirely predictable that there would be lawsuits. I do think it’s unfortunate that the industry couldn’t figure out a way early on to make it work, rather than setting out on a kind of rearguard action to defend the print empire.
What’s the “story” here?
The story I tell is about what’s happening to knowledge, how we share books, and what’s going to become of libraries—will they still have relevance? I also wanted to show the divisions among librarians. Some see their roles as just being extended into the digital era and helping people find information. Some, however, fear for the loss of their power, and their beautiful places. Many libraries, especially university libraries, are lovely places full of treasures. And what Google has done diminishes their relevance, I think, which leads into the other prime thesis of the book—the shift in cultural power from New York to Silicon Valley. Culturally, it’s been a diminishment for the East, watching its power and influence being usurped by computer programmers. But I do think there’s a sort of cold, technocratic vision that goes with Silicon Valley. Putting engineers in charge of everything can be a bad idea. China’s run by engineers, for example, and it’s not a good place to be a writer or an artist.
What are some of the more memorable or surprising elements of the story for you?
It’s not very dramatic, but a person I’m not very impressed with is Judge Denny Chin. I think his caution and political ambition have been detriments to the process. It took him 14 months to write a judgment that was frankly not very impressive, and it’s partly due to him that the progress of digitization has slowed. Also, there’s the role of Harvard librarian Robert Darnton, who basically launched a disinformation campaign to sandbag this thing. I was surprised by the raw ambition to preserve his influence. He wants, I think, to force Congress or Google somehow to give those books to him.
Digital reading has totally evolved since these suits were first filed, how did that affect the case?
Right, and this case follows the arc and the ascendancy of e-books and digital publishing. In a very contentious way, this battle kind of midwifed the explosion in digital publishing we see today. I mean, just three or four years ago, Google was supposed to take over every bookstore and library, and yet now it is Amazon that owns the literary ecosystem to an unimaginable degree. That was a remarkable shift.
What do you think we’ll still remember from this publishing vs. technology moment in history? What would be a good ending?
I think we’ll look back at the fading of the East Coast publishing and literary culture, and the rise of a more diverse but tech-based literary culture. As for an ending, I think the worst outcome would be for this [corpus] to be locked up for much longer. I think it’s critical to make these wonderful books available as soon as possible.