Friday, April 14, 2006

Google Me Curious

Disclaimer: This post represents only its author's opinion, not the opinion of the 2 B Read participants, this blog, or RWA.

Various writers' groups have come out swinging against Google Book Search. The general idea of Google Book Search is to give potential readers the opportunity to search through books for specific terms and view those instances in context. The primary issue the writers' groups -- and some publishing houses -- seem to be up in arms about is the "unauthorized copying" of copyrighted texts. Meanwhile, some major universities and some publishing houses have given Google permission to scan their texts, which is a major boon for researchers and scholars.

Some writers' groups have extrapolated beyond this immediate issue and sound almost alarmist in their language. A recent article in the Romance Writers of America Romance Writers Report outlines one of the arguments given by Paul Aiken of Authors Guild in testimony before a subcommittee on COmmerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, then concludes with the tantalizing question: "Who is going to buy a book if they can get it for free off the Internet?"

Having spend a decade in the technology industry and knowing how easy it is for a new technology to be either misunderstood or misrepresented, I decided to go see what was going on with Google Book Search. I spent a morning searching various terms (of course, I had to check on terms I knew were used in my own book published last March, just for grins) and decided the ultimate test would be to search on the term "romance." When Julie Beard's excellent The Complete Idiot's Guide to Romance Writing appeared as one of the books I could "browse," I clicked it. I have that book, and know that the word "romance" appears on almost every page. Would I be able to read or print or download vast numbers of pages?

Ah... no. I wasn't.

Here's what I found:
  • I could view an entire page where the term "romance" appeared, but only because the publisher had given Google permission to display an entire page. (Other books allowed only a "snippet" of three lines to be displayed, because the publisher had not given Google permission to display the entire page. This is explained in the help files.)

  • Even when viewing an entire page, I couldn't print the book page. I could print everything around the place where the copyrighted text was, but the copyrighted text itself was not printed.

  • While there were over 200 instances of the word "romance" in Julie Beard's book, I was allowed to view only a few of them before Google told me, in an oblique way, that I'd seen enough.
What we're missing, I think, is a rational dialogue among writers, publishers, and Google. Conversations in court usually generate more heat than light, and I have to say that I fault Google for not sending an envoy to every major writers' organization to present their case and explain how Google Book Search can be beneficial to copyright holders. That one action could have defused a lot of the ire and fear from the get-go.

But since that didn't happen, let's talk. What do you think about Google Book Search? Is it a useful tool for readers or a threat to writers' livelihoods?


Alfie said...

Great topic. Great post, Sandra. To tell you the truth, I've had mixed feelings about the whole thing. And you did something common sense that made it clear which side of the fence I'm going to fall on now. Sounds like a bigger asset to authors than a problem! Thanks.

Colleen Thompson said...

This was fascinating. The restriction eased my concerns and made me think this might be a boon for authors, not only in terms of generating sales for our work (unlikely, in fiction), but for helping us preview research materials. When we see something that should prove worthwhile, we can either buy it or request it from our libraries.

Since authors are researchers, too, this could end up proving a boon.

Nancy Herkness said...

Like so much technology, the Google Book Search is a double-edged sword. As a writer of fiction, I don't think it affects my livelihood much in the sense that few people will attempt to read one of my books a few pages at a time through Google. And it might prove to be a very useful research tool.

That's exactly why if I were a writer of non-fiction I'd be pretty upset about the Google Book Search. If I wanted a recipe from a cookbook, I could just pull up the page and copy it down. Recipes--or at least the kinds I attempt to use--are fairly short and therefore lend themselves to a quick hand copy.

In doing research for my own books, I rarely need an entire volume on the subject so I'd be sorely tempted to just look up the info I wanted through the Book Search. And the non-fiction author would receive no remuneration for my use of his/her work.

As an author, I have a problem with that. It's hard enough to make a living as a writer without giving it away for free!

Sandra K. Moore said...

Thanks for commenting, y'all.

One of the other issues that I'm curious about -- but haven't researched yet -- is the fact that when Google wants permission to scan books, it asks publishers, not individual authors.

So it seems that one facet we haven't explored is why publishers have the authority to make this decision for the copyright holders....