Google will do what is in (its) best interest at all times.
–Dave Rosenberg, open-source software executive
I have yet to see anyone discuss what is most dangerous about Google’s attempt to commandeer our literary heritage: Power corrupts. There is far too much power in the hands of fewer people and corporations than ever.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich reminded us is his March 27th column in the San Francisco Chronicle that: “…corporations exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to make as much money as possible….” The actions of Amazon, the leading online bookseller, with customers and publishers have shown how the pursuit of profit can affect decisions.
Google’s noble goal is to make the knowledge in the world’s 130 million books available to anyone connected to the Web. Thanks to the exploding smartphone market, by the end of the decade, this will include most of the people on the planet. But Google’s equally noble commitment not to do evil hasn’t prevented it from happening. Digitizing books in copyright without permission created a firestorm of protest from the writing and publishing community.
Unless stopped, technology companies, prodded by political, financial, and competitive pressures, will control the culture for which they are the gatekeepers. Our literary heritage should be in a library available to all, not a profit center subject to corporate needs. Access to books is far more important than quarterly dividends. Allowing books to become victims of the corporate imperative will lead to evil being done to readers, writers, students, and publishers.
Consider this solution:
1. Google should seize the opportunity created by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin’s ruling against its plan, because of concerns about copyright, privacy, and monopoly. Empower the publishing community to make decisions about how Google provides access to books. One of the wisest investment Google can make is to finance a nonprofit governing board with the ability to decide how best to balance access and profit in the public interest.
The board would include a representative from Google, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, the Author’s Guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the American Board of Higher Education, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and perhaps other organizations.
2. Have these organizations elect a member to serve a single two-year term for the part-time position in return for the income the member presently earns plus expenses. The ideal candidates will have integrity, creativity, and a passionate dedication to the public’s right to access books.
3. Make the board’s monthly meetings transparent: televise them, including who votes for what, and post the text of its meetings on the Web.
If Google separates control and profits, the courts and the international book community will look more kindly on its efforts.
Lurking behind this issue are two questions as important as any we face:
1. How do we grant individuals and organizations enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted?
2. At a time of accelerating change, how do we enable government to solve huge, growing, complex, related problems?
History has proven Napoleon right: “Humanity is only limited by its imagination.” All that separates conception and achievement are time and resources. Creativity and collaboration across media, disciplines, and borders will continue to unleash a growing torrent of wonders.
What we desperately need is a new group of founding fathers and mothers to reimagine the American dream and how to achieve it.. Whatever the dream is, books — in whatever form they take — will continue to be an essential part of it.