"Skip the facts, just gimme the details." - Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
That distant sound is the Google drumbeat of a brewing battle in the air. Amid the constant noise surrounding the Google Print Initiative - and amid my mixing of metaphors with famous movie quotes - it's easy to let the details distract you from the facts.
The Google Print initiative is a partnership with five major libraries to convert their holdings into digital files that would then be made freely searchable over the Web. The goal is to make the world's books, scholarly papers and special collections searchable. That has a great number of potential benefits because one of the great promises of the Internet has always been to democratize information for everyone. Adding a vast collection of scholarly books would do wonders for the quality and credibility of the typical set of search results most students now get. But it's important to remember that the Google Print program won't make the vast majority of the books it's archiving available in full-text form.
Google Print users will only be able to view the full text of public domain content (items published BEFORE 1923, generally speaking). Only snippets of copyrighted content will be viewable online. After that, if you want to view the rest of a particular book, Google appears to be planning on identifying a local library that has a copy or an online bookseller with one for sale. The reason for this disconnect in the typical research process is that Google is not obtaining the permission of the publishers or authors to digitize their works in the first place. That means Google cannot allow searchers to view the full-text without violating copyright law.
The confrontation is shaping up to be the next battle in the war between content creators / owners and technologists. Until now, the music industry has been the primary battleground on this conflict. We've all witnessed file-sharing companies like Napster dismantled or forced to reorganize their business practices. Even everyday consumers (especially students) are being sued by major media companies. While Google's mission to organize and deliver vast amounts of information does bring countless benefits to end users, the specific needs of schools won't be met until a large, full-text repository of books is available online.
Because legitimate copyright concerns of authors and publishers can't be brushed aside, there is no quick solution to the goal of creating a massive online library. In the music and film industries, creative products such as iTunes and NetFlix demonstrated a successful navigation of issues surrounding content ownership, access and technology, and consumer needs. It will be more difficult in the book industry where copyright ownership is exponentially more fragmented.
Another POV: Newsweek's Oct. 31 issue summarizes the growing cast of characters in this unfolding drama http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9785346/site/newsweek/