Monday, 20 December 2004

Copyright and Google Digital Library

re: Press commentary on Google's Digital Library Initiative via Auricle.

One of the press quoted was:

... we have the Sunday Times article All the world's best books at a click (Sunday Times, 19 Dec 2004) by John Sutherland, Professor of Modern English at University College London, which raises the commercial spectre:

"By the act of converting printed books to digital form Google will be creating a new copyright ... Works in the public domain will effectively be privatised. Whether or not Google chooses to exercise its rights, it and its library partners will be owners of the newly processed property. So the vast reservoir of material in the out-of-copyright public domain will become 'proprietary', or pay-per-view. If we get access, it will be because we are 'allowed', not because we have the right. Great Books will go the way of Test cricket. You don’t pay, you don ’t see. Google hasn't said it will do this; but, as far as I can make out, nor has it definitely said it won't. "

My understanding of copyright is that copyright protect the manifestation of a piece of work. While and if Google is digitising public domain material and locked them away in a pay-per-view system, it can only be charging for the manifestation it has created. Google, or in fact anyone else, has no right to forbid anyone else to digitise the work and put the work up in public domain or lock-up in yet another system. If we still believe in the "invisible hand" of the free market, the competition pressure will make the cost of digital goods to near zero because of the near-zero marginal cost of reproduction although there is the upfront cost in creating the material in the first place. The market competition will be shifted to another level (e.g. competing in the ease of locating the material) and we would be likely to pay for the convenience of finding of the content - not the content itself.

I hope the decision makers in Google (or any large data repository) will understand this economical force and adjust their business models accordingly. Otherwise, it will be just a waste of their initial investment in digitizing the material. People won't be paying the content, but will be happy to pay for the convenience of finding the material directly (which I am doubtful) or indirectly (e.g. via advertisement).

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