Sunday, August 23, 2009

Googlebooks: Innovation and the Future of the Book

There's a standard joke about a restaurant-goer who complains afterward: "The food was terrible... and there was so little of it!"

I'm reminded of this while reading the letter by the University of California faculty to the judge in the Google/AAP settlement case. First they argue that the class represented by the Author's Guild does not include academics, who are major, if not the major, producers of authored texts. Then they state their three primary concerns:
  1. to maximize access, prices should be reasonable
  2. there must be provision for open access choices for authors who want to maximize access to their works
  3. user privacy must be guaranteed
I find it unfortunate that the faculty chose to lead with the question of price... it sounds a bit like "This settlement is seriously flawed... and we might not be able to afford it!" The other two concerns suggest important modifications to the settlement as currently written.

All three of these concerns are premised on the acceptance of the settlement. There is another, perhaps more serious concern that isn't here, although it may not have been possible for this group because it could be incompatible with basic premises of the settlement. That concern is the question of INNOVATION.


We may be at a crossroads in the evolution of the book, one that could change forever how one goes about the acts of scholarship and knowledge creation. What happens when some portion of our previously analog texts is available digitally? What changes take place to the nature of research? What are the potential unintended consequences?

We don't know the answers to these questions, in part because they are about the future. It is probably safe to assume, however, that the future of the book is not a linear progression from where we are today, but that it could go in a number of different directions, ending up somewhere that we can't even imagine at this moment in time. To get there, we must experiment, we must innovate. There will be trial and error. There may not be a single "killer app." Above all, the change will make use of technology but it will essentially be a cultural change. Perhaps a massive cultural change.

Some commentators have said that the production of texts digitally makes books irrelevant, that the stable, book-length text will cease to exist as we know it today. Instead, we may be returning to our medieval roots, before texts were fixed by the repetitive nature of the printing process. [1] Others see digitization of previously analog books as a way to reassert the impact of the last 500 years of thought on scholarship. It is easy to imagine the discovery of long-hidden gems from the stacks of university libraries, just as it is easy to imagine being overwhelmed by marginal and irrelevant retrievals. The main thing is that we won't know until it happens.

We can have some fun speculating on the types of things that we may be able to do with these previously analog texts in the digital future: integrating these texts with those that were 'born digital;" creating hyperlinks between them (one's own personal Memex); recombining texts into new text; annotating and commenting in a public or semi-public sphere; mashing up text with sound and video and data. On a larger scale, we face the possibility of global topic maps that will show us previously undiscovered connections.

Which of these possibilities will be available to us, however, is up to Google, because under this settlement only Google has the right to innovate across the body of digitized texts. The rest of us, including the faculty of the universities whose libraries are providing the books, are merely consumers. We can buy the product, or not buy the product, but the raw materials, the digital copies of the library texts, belong to Google. The monetizing of the texts is the job of the Book Rights Registry (BRR) that will be formed, which will represent the rights holders. Google's job is to provide the product that will make monetization possible. Both of these entities, Google and the BRR, are focused on the price issue as their main concern. In that, they have much in common with the University of California faculty.

This is a perfect example of how the asking of a question shapes reality. The question surrounding the settlement is: are authors (as defined by the Author's Guild) served by the Google/AAP settlement -- yes or no? The bigger question, What is the future of the book in our civilization? is not on the table. Yet, in the end, that may be the question that is answered by this settlement, whether that outcome serves authors or not.

[1] Recommended reading: The Future of the Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[Note: I am aware that there are serious issues of copyright law in all of this; that it's not just a question of technology. Whether or not this settlement helps or hinders the evolution of copyright law is a discussion better left to those with a legal background. But it is an active part of the discussion around the settlement.]


Steven Chabot said...

While you are not incorrect, I think the negative commentary more has to do with the vision we want to see for the future of the book.

Do we really want the future of the book to be dominated by a single player with the keys to an infinite database of information, who can dictate charges at will.

The entire community of libraries had a chance to step up here and fulfill their non-profit mandate. And while many did with the Open Content Alliance, the fact is too many just accepted Google's offer to do it for free to quickly.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the libraries should throw a wrench into the works to get Google's attention. Maybe they should just stop supplying the books to until the issues are resolved.

bookstothesky said...

Hm. It's even worse than that, or better, depending on your point of view: Google is specifically prohibited from innovating by the terms of the Settlement. The 'Specific Prohibitions' section forbids, amongst other things, adding hyperlinks (other than in obvious situations such as existing internal and external references) and sharing user annotations. The language is aimed at constraining the presentation of in-copyright material at least to something very close to the existing 'snapshot' view of the ebook. On the upside, this means still space for publishers to add value and innovate aroung the content for which they own the rights - if we're up to the challenge.

Karen Coyle said...

Hello, Books2sky -

Good points about the possibilities that publishers themselves may have for in-print items. That won't satisfy the academic folks, of course, who operate often in areas where they need a mix of in-print and out-of-print items to complete their tasks. It could, however, be a boon to publishers who have the foresight to do some innovation themselves.

You are right, the settlement itself constrains what Google can and cannot do, and shows an incredibly narrow view of the world of books and learning.

At the same time, Google can do a lot of "background" work -- leading to ranking, grouping, suggestions... just as long as they don't mess with the text itself. The way I read the settlement, Google and the BRR will be constantly negotiating new product features. So I assume that Google will be able to present features that have $$ attached and get permission.

What I know for sure is that academic institutions, including those who are lending their books to Google to make up the service, will not be able to use the contents of the digital copies in creative ways, not even in the ways that are allowed to Google. The "non-consumptive" research that will be allowed to the academic community, by its nature, is not going to result in new ways to consume books. Whether Google can add consumption features to its products probably depends on 1) keeping a high level of control over the output and 2) passing $$ to the BRR for the use of those features.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the two electronic reader platforms starting to dominate, I can say that where I am located in Northeast Ohio makes quite a bit of difference. The Kindle is yoked to Sprint's CDMA network, making the on-board wireless functions useless outside the continental US, while Sony just announced a GSM-based phone yoked to AT&T's network which limits use outside the continental US.

The farm I am on has coverage from neither of those carriers. The only reliable carrier on-farm is Verizon Wireless. Both devices would suffer from the slow broadband here in tethered updating from a computer.

As for the civilizational issue, this is a fairly disturbing thing Google is pushing for. It provides advantages to urban populations to the disadvantage of all others. Since I got to the farm from Las Vegas, I've probably knocked off a novel every 2 days on average. At least physical materials are compatible with lamp light if the electricity goes out...