The latest round was fired last week when Google, which began life as a search engine but clearly aims to be much, much more, announced that it was changing the scope of its much-ballyhooed book "scanning" project, known as Google Print.
Google wont copy all works. Publishers who dont want their books scanned into Googles database can choose not to participate.
"Any and all copyright holders—both Google Print partners and non-partners—can tell us which books theyd prefer that we not scan if we find them in a library. To allow plenty of time to review these new options, we wont scan any in-copyright books from now until this November," says an announcement on Googles corporate blog.
The announcement annoyed the trade group representing the nations book publishers who claim Googles tactics are a bit hard to take. The "opt out" idea basically means "I can use your work until you say I cant," says Allan Adler, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers.
Thats not a negotiation, says Adler, its a pressure tactic no different from Grokster and Napster telling its users that the law—not the companys violation of that law—was at fault. "Because its been very cleverly couched as a consumer issue, I think some of the issues are confused, he says of the dispute with Google.
Hes right. Google is trying to get book publishers into seeing things its way: The Internet opens up their products to new markets and new customers because it frees them from the constraints of physically reproducing work. They should get there as soon as possible. If they dont, theyll be left behind in a world where we are all online.
This see-the-world seduction is a time-honored tech tradition, and its delivered on the companys site—a call to its corporate spokesman David Krane wasnt returned—in the happy marketing speak familiar to anyone whos been around Silicon Valley. Sometimes its reality-based. Sometimes its not.
But—most importantly—since Napster, the seduction has lost some of its cachet. Industries have been built on the works produced and copyrighted by artists, writers and musicians. For Adlers book publishers the dilemma looks like this: Consumers arent interested in eBooks, and his members arent software engineers who could create better technology. His members arent interested in becoming Web sites because Web sites dont make any money. Googles proposal makes no economic sense.
Now, no one in the book business argues—with a straight face, any way—that the industry isnt in need of dire, substantive change and reform. So Googles approach—to create a situation where ideas and material not on the Web cease to exist—may actually have the effect the company wants.
Just as Napster spawned—indirectly—iTunes, Google Print may start someone in the book business changing how books are reproduced and distributed, bringing in a Web-based element thats yet to be embraced. Because Google is right: It is inevitable that everything that can be on the Web will be on the Web.
Google also knows that the fastest way to create a digital world is to get consumers to demand one. And by shrewdly starting Google Print in college and university libraries, it is aiming squarely at young consumers who will, it surely hopes, be lifelong users of its products and services.
This initiative—not copyright infringement—is why book publishers should be worried. Students who become adults who believe that nothing exists "off-line" (which, of course, will come to be an empty term) are not likely to ever do business with a book publisher operating as they do today.
This is technologys tried-and-true evangelical approach. It works beautifully with marketing or selling products, particularly if they dont cost consumers anything. But it doesnt work so well with politicians and the established industries.
Will Google gin up enough support for its various projects to get real consideration of the idea that an online peek at a book is no different from the Xerox you make in the library and take home to study? Perhaps. Will it take time? Oh, yes.
But the real question—the question for anyone in tech—is will Congress listen? Adlers betting they wont. "When people talk about changing copyright law, they need to remember how difficult that process is, he says. "There are a number of extremely powerful stakeholders."