Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who’s now the head of the Association of American Publishers, sits in her office on lower Fifth Avenue, reminiscing with me about the last time her industry tangled with technologists. “Back in the nineties, we had all these kids in black T-shirts who came and told us, ‘You guys are flat-earthers, you don’t know anything, we’re in tune with the future,’ ” she says. “Well, those guys crashed.” Schroeder chuckles for a second but then adopts a tone of infinite solemnity. “But now there’s a more sophisticated bunch, and they’ve come up with a business plan that crashes us.”
Schroeder is talking about Google, of course, the search-engine titan with which the publishers now find themselves embroiled in a bitter copyright lawsuit. In the decade since the Web emerged as a commercial force, such contretemps between old media and new—the music industry versus Napster, Hollywood versus Grokster—have become as routine a feature of the Internet as spam that promises penis enlargement.
Yet somehow the fact that the book business has chosen to take on Google doesn’t reek of same-old same-old. It’s startling, even mildly shocking, and more than a little revealing. For no matter how the publishers’ lawsuit ultimately unfolds, it has already provided the most vivid evidence to date of a seismic shift in the business Zeitgeist: from unalloyed Googlemania to gathering Googlephobia.
The signs are everywhere. In France, Jacques Chirac has ordered his minions to gin up a French and German search engine—on the grounds that Google is (wait for it) a tool of U.S. cultural imperialism. In Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart board members admit to keeping a wary eye on Google—whose capacity to alert shoppers to better bargains elsewhere is seen as a burgeoning threat. Even out in Silicon Valley, reproachful accusations are hurled that the once-beloved leader of the Internet resurgence has taken on a dark Microsoftian cast.
But nowhere is the sense of Googlephobia more acute than in New York, particularly in the village within a village that is the media-industrial complex. There’s Madison Avenue, in a state of panic over Google’s reinvention of advertising as a science driven by algorithms instead of an art propelled by (ahem) “creativity.” There’s the New York Times, quaking in its wingtips as Google ventures into online classifieds. There’s the cable industry wringing its hands over Google’s designs on video distribution on the Web.
And then there’s the book business. Now, it’s fair (albeit unkind) to say that publishers have earned a reputation as the most stubbornly analog of media concerns: If music and movie companies are dinosaurs in the Darwinian scheme of electronic evolution, publishers are moss-draped invertebrates still sloshing around in the primordial soup. Compared with book people, even newspaper people are a more Web-savvy species.
So it’s not surprising to find that Schroeder’s take on Google’s incursion into the realm of books is dire in extremis. “Alan Murray wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal that called Google’s business model a new kind of feudalism: The peasants produce the content; Google makes the profits,” she informs me, then ladles on an extra helping of ominous foreboding. “Do we really want one corporation controlling all the content in the world?”
The proximate cause of Schroeder’s angst—and of the lawsuit filed by the AAP as well as a similar one issued by the Authors Guild—is Google’s plan, announced a year ago, to digitize and render searchable every book contained in five major libraries: Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library. For books published before 1923, and therefore in the public domain, Google would provide access to the entire text. For those still covered by copyright, however, it would display only a snippet—one or two lines—around the term you’re searching for, plus basic bibliographic information and links to publishers or booksellers who might provide the full book.
What makes the plan controversial is that Google has no intention to ask for permission before scanning copyrighted books. To the AAP and the Authors Guild, this constitutes a naked case of copyright infringement. Google disagrees. It maintains that seeking permission from publishers or authors—especially when it comes to the millions of books, as much as 60 percent of the total, that are out of print but still under copyright—would be so burdensome as to make its Alexandrian project impossible. More to the point, Google claims that because it’s copying the books only to create a comprehensive index, and because it offers snippets only of copyrighted text, its plan falls under the “fair use” exception in copyright law (which allows book reviewers, for example, to quote from books without permission).
Who’s right? Impossible to say. By all accounts, the law of fair use is mind-bendingly complex: “There are parts of it that I don’t understand, and I’ve been studying it for years,” says Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford intellectual-property guru. Like virtually everyone involved in the dispute—he’s a vocal Google backer—Lessig allows that there are precedents that point in each direction. But he also acknowledges that the legal issues are in some respects peripheral, for the battle is actually being fueled by factors at once more venal and more visceral.
At the top of the list is money—something the publishers make no bones about. “I will stipulate that they built a great search engine; I use it and I love it,” Schroeder tells me. “But someone has to pay for the content so there’s something to search for. So we have to figure this out. I say to Google, ‘Let’s make a deal. You won’t make quite as much money, but I think you’ll do okay. Let’s share, boys, come on, let’s share! You don’t have to be so greedy!’ ”
“I can’t speak for the industry, but I don’t trust Google,” says Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos.
That Google is not so open about its pecuniary motivations is one of many things about the company that drives the publishers to distraction. “There’s sort of this innocent arrogance about them,” Jack Romanos, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, tells me. “One minute they’re pretending to be all idealistic, talking about how they’re only in this to expand the world’s knowledge, and the next they’re telling you that you’re going to do it their way or no way at all.” Romanos went on, “We bent over backwards in negotiations, but they showed no interest in what we had to offer. They had a holier-than-thou attitude that hasn’t done them any favors.”
Both Romanos and Schroeder argue that Google’s intransigence owes to the fact that, for the company, the dispute is about more than books. Schroeder: “Google approached our colleagues in music, movies, and broadcasting with the same deal. They said, ‘We’re going to copy all your stuff and only use a snippet.’ And our colleagues said, ‘Oh yeah? Do that and we’ll sue.’ I think Google believed those guys because they’d sued before, so Google let it go. But we hadn’t sued. We hadn’t even threatened to sue because publishers are such nice guys. Google saw us as patsies. They thought that our guys weren’t sophisticated enough to understand the issue. They assumed we’d never sue. But they were wrong—so here we are, and isn’t it fun?”
Romanos concurs. “Google thought, Hey, if we can bully the publishing industry, we can move into other forms of media.” And then he adds, with ostentatious brio, “But the publishing industry has backbone—we’re showing that right now.”
What the publishing industry is showing, actually, is that its own stance is about more than books as well. It’s about posturing and pride, ego and vanity, about the defensiveness of an industry that’s been called “flat-earthers” one too many times for its liking. If Google were to stick to its pledges about how it would employ the megadatabase of books that it’s constructing, the book business would likely benefit. But publishers don’t believe that Google can be relied on to keep its word. They fear that the company, which has made a mint off a technology, the Internet, that publishers still only vaguely comprehend, will someday abandon its putative adherence to just-the-snippets fair use and screw the publishers with their pants on.
“I can’t speak for the industry, but I don’t trust Google and Simon & Schuster doesn’t trust Google,” Romanos says. “Why would you assume that people who had taken the law into their own hands now would abide by the law in the future? If we let this get away from us, it would be a huge mistake. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in again.”
Talk like that may sound wildly paranoid—but then, as someone once observed, even paranoids have enemies. As the publishing industry and the rest of the traditional media are only now starting to grasp, Google is a company of vast and omnivorous ambitions. In the eyes of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, there are no limits to the segments of the economy that the computational machine they’ve built is capable of upending. As the Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie put it recently in the Times, “Google is the realization of everything that we thought the Internet was going to be.”
And Google is not alone. Five years after the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the Internet is back—only this time, its potential for radical disruption is married to the capacity for outlandish profits. Once again, the media village senses that the wolf is at the door. But the village suspects that this time, he’s not going away, and that he’s brought some friends. The village has been wrong before. But probably not now.
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