I have to admit I’m biased in favor of Google. I have friends who work in both the Cambridge and Mountain View offices. I’ve tried, and provided feedback on, every beta Google has produced. I worked for a group trying to get funding from its philanthropic arm, Google.org. And every time I hear CEO Eric Schmidt speak at a conference, he strikes me as one of the most intelligent, well-versed, sober, geektastic corporate leaders I can think of. (If you have an hour, this interview with the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta is definitely worth watching:
So perhaps I’m biased when I don’t see a problem with Google archiving so-called orphan works, publications that have been abandoned by both author and publisher, are out of print, and are effectively if not technically out of copyright. I don’t see a problem with making available works that no one can easily see/acquire, that no one is promoting, and that no one is making money from—but that may, and often do, still have great value.
I’m also biased, however, in favor of one of the great archival minds of our age, Robert Darnton:
Critics say that without the orphan books, no competitor will ever be able to compile the comprehensive online library Google aims to create, giving the company more control than ever over the realm of digital information. And without competition, they say, Google will be able to charge universities and others high prices for access to its database.
The settlement, “takes the vast bulk of books that are in research libraries and makes them into a single database that is the property of Google,” said Robert Darnton, head of the Harvard University library system. “Google will be a monopoly.”
The question for Darnton and others, though, is: is this a bad thing? Google does not somehow become the exclusive copyright holder to orphan works. Other groups and companies are welcome to do the same thing and to also make money from it. And this particular monopoly is, contradictorily, limited and temporary. There will be well-funded competitors. There’s no indication that Google wishes to charge for access—it’s fair to assume Google will monetize the collection through targeted advertising as it does with search results and within Gmail. The original orphan works don’t disappear.
So I don’t begrudge Google its ambition. While experience shows that powerful groups try to control archives as a way of shaping history, experience also shows that seemingly dominant businesses, such as General Motors and Microsoft, are inevitably outflanked. And most important, as Schmidt explains in the Auletta interview, Google thrives only in so far as it is trusted. It’s a business that deals in user data, and that demands trust. Trust broken once is trust lost, so it’s in Google interest to welcome competing ideas, to accept criticism, and to be, above all, open.