Google, books and public value

Already much has been written about the American court’s ruling in favour of Google being able to digitize millions of books without express permission from the copyright holder. The EFF warmly welcomed the ruling, other commentators have some reservations, and the Authors Guild has said it will appeal. Judge Denny Chin was absolutely clear, writing:

“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,” the ruling reads. “It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.”

The judgement suggests Google Books will act like a store allowing people to browse before they go ahead and buy the book – that it will be an unusual example, in other words, of a monopoly in the public interest.

Hmm. There is obvious potential for researchers and readers to benefit from increased access to books. It is possible that authors will benefit if searchability increases rather than decreases their sales – this is plausible but it is an empirical issue, so we will see.

However, the ruling (on a quick read) ignores other potential side-effects. Google is a commercial company, not a public library, and the architecture it uses to present search results will not be based on the same kind of criteria. It may well divert people away from libraries, which are important social and cultural institutions. It may have a market impact in bookselling depending on the links given alongside search results – can retailers buy those slots? I don’t know. The e-book link is a solo link in the examples I looked at, taking you to pay in Google Play with Google Wallet. There will be other unintended consequences I’ve not thought of yet.

If there is an appeal, it isn’t quite the end of the saga, but I think it is clear the game is probably over for the Authors Guild. However, the remaining delay gives Google time to reflect on how it implements Google Books – what are the principles, and what role does public service play in this initiative?

Coincidentally, I spent this morning at a fascinating conference on public value organised by Channel 4 (talking about how the BBC Trust thinks about public value – here is a link to our publication on it, Public value in Practice). I believe commercial organisations can have a public purpose, that this has a large overlap with the profit motive, rather than conflicting with it. But it behoves Google as a massive commercial entity providing one of the most important public goods – knowledge – to tell us more about the principles by which it will run Google Books.