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.