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Why Google Books Deserves Better Than These Obituaries

April 24, 2017, 7:33 PM UTC

When scholars of the future look back at the early 21st century, they’ll point to technology milestones like the first iPhone and the Tesla Roadster. They’ll also include another milestone—a fabulous digital library built by Google—and wonder why the world did so little to appreciate it.

As many people know, Google spent hundreds of millions of dollars to scan the collections of great libraries of Oxford, Stanford and New York City and elsewhere. The result is the most valuable repository of knowledge and culture in history: A present day Library of Alexandria spanning centuries of works in many languages, and accessible anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

But despite this staggering achievement, recent accounts of Google Books read like a review of a failed tech product. A recent feature in Backchannel, for instance, portrays the project as one of Google’s so-called moonshots that came crashing down to earth. Titled “How Google Books Got Lost,” the article casts the whole endeavor, which included a lawsuit from the Authors Guild, as a smug morality play that delivers a comeuppance to a reckless technology company.

As Scott Rosenberg at Backchannel highlights:

[The legal fight] taught Google something valuable. As the Authors Guild’s Gleick points out, Google started Books with a “better ask forgiveness than permission” attitude that’s common today in the world of startups. In a sense, the company behaved like the Uber of intellectual property — a kind of read-sharing service —while expecting to be seen the way it saw itself, as a beneficent pantheon of wizards serving the entire human species. It was naive, and the stubborn opposition it aroused came as a shock.

This sort of clucking is tiresome, but also misinformed. I talked to people at Google while doing a masters thesis on the scanning project in 2010, and learned the lawsuit didn’t come as a surprise to anyone involved. Instead, they had long anticipated it, and planned to parry it with a clever settlement proposal. The proposed deal (which a judge rejected in 2011) may have been controversial, but there was nothing naive about it. It’s also worth noting that if the judge had blessed the deal, the resulting business model for books could have been big—though nowhere near as dominant as what Amazon had built already.

Unfortunately, the copyright case over Google Books morphed into something larger. It became a vehicle for anxieties over how the digital era has undermined authors on a financial and cultural level. Those concerns are legitimate, but scapegoating Google Books for these fears was misguided.

Meanwhile, groups like the Authors Guild continue to celebrate the collapse of the settlement even though no other options have emerged to replicate its potential benefits. Those benefits would have included a new market for digital copies of old books, and a solution to the problem of “orphan works”—books whose authors cannot be located that are out-of-print but still under copyright protection. Instead, there is stasis.

“Rumors of the demise.. are greatly exaggerated”

The case for what Google Books might have been is the focus of a second feature, published in the Atlantic this month. Titled “Torching the Library of Alexandria,” the piece is a lamentation for dashed dreams, and a tidy summary of how legal thrashings around the book-scanning project sapped its spirit.

“It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse,” The Atlantic‘s James Somers concludes.

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The conclusion is melodramatic, however, as is the article’s title. While Google’s digital library hasn’t delivered all of its promised bounty, it’s hardly been “torched.” Indeed, anyone can still search Google Books for nearly any book—or even just a phrase from it—and find it right away, often with the opportunity to see entire pages of the work. That’s pretty marvelous, and there’s nothing else like it.

“Rumors of the demise of Google Books are greatly exaggerated, and we can assure you that the team working on the product is excited about what’s in the pipeline,” said a Google spokesperson.

The company didn’t offer further details, but a person familiar with the project said Google is still working with libraries to add new works, and that current engineering efforts are focused on improving the quality of older scans. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also said there’s no chance Google will abruptly shut down the project—as it’s done with other popular services such as Google Reader—in part because many senior members of the company are fiercely attached to it.

But if Google is to dispel the recent mutterings about the project’s decline, it must do more to raise the profile of Google Books, and offer some assurances about how it will ensure the collection—which, recall, is nothing less than the history of human knowledge—will survive. Ideally, the company should create a trust or foundation to manage it so as to ensure it endures no matter what corporate changes come at Google.

Meanwhile, it’s time for Google Books opponents to acknowledge the astonishing thing Google has built. Critics like the former head of Harvard libraries, Robert Darnton, have long suggested some university or public consortium can replicate the project. But today it’s clearer than ever this is just a pipeline, and no one will muster the money, energy, and technology to do what Google did also over again.

The bottom line is Google Books is one of the greatest technological marvels of our time. Let’s treat it that way. It deserves better than fraught obituaries and gloating about its shortcomings.