Interview with Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library
In 2004, Google began digitizing the collections of major libraries for a service it calls Google Book Search. Soon after, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers joined forces for a lawsuit on behalf of copyright holders, who were never asked for permission, thank you, and wanted fair compensation.
Well, the parties have since reached a settlement, putting Google in a position to be a modern Library of Alexandria with full texts of millions of titles online. And libraries are free, right? Um, not this one.
So there are roughly three kinds of books – those in the public domain, those that are under copyright and in print, and those that are under copyright and out of print, and there’s a vast number of those in the latter category that no one would have access to if Google didn't digitize them and put them online.
And Google will make these books available everywhere in the country, maybe someday everywhere in the world. So imagine a small library in, let's say, a small town in the Midwest. By subscribing to Google Book Search, readers there will have access to, well, a library that will be something like the Library of Alexandria - certainly, I think, in a few years, greater than the Library of Congress.
You've said that you admire many of the business practices of Google, but you’re concerned that they may one day impose exorbitant prices, and you cite the example of scholarly journals as a kind of cautionary tale.
I think once people get used to this fabulous access, they will say, this is a necessity of life. Maybe not one particular book, but the general service of having at your fingertips the largest library in the world, this is too good to be believed, and it could result in what we call “cocaine pricing.” That is, you sample it for a while and you find that the service is great. Then it becomes a bit more expensive and still more expensive, and nothing can stop the ratcheting up of the cost. Now, I don't believe that Google is out to do evil at all. I just think that it’s a monopoly, and monopolies have a way of charging monopoly prices.
Right, because the settlement evidently does not allow for actual competition to Google.
That’s correct. There is something called a “most favored nation” clause. That means that if any competitor came along, that competitor could not be offered more favorable terms than the terms that Google already has.
And though Google, as you say, may not do evil, you do note that the purpose of the settlement was to, quote, “maximize revenues” and not to facilitate the spread of information.
Well, the enlightenment dream, which you see everywhere in the works of the philosophers of the enlightenment of the 18th century, is a dream in which the printing press is put to service in order to spread knowledge.
I think ordinary Americans actually believe in it. They think that knowledge will empower you, enrich your life, and that it ought to be basically free. That dream is something that I think was foremost at the founding of our republic. ... I love books, and I really think that there is a democratic quality to digitization. But if those supplying it are simply trying to maximize profits, the whole thing could turn sour.