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Googlephobia

Google may be the giant asteroid that is going to make the old-media dinosaurs extinct—but the publishing industry is trying to head it off.

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Illustration by Brian Stauffer  

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).


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