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Everybody Loves Google. Except When They Don't. [ADIBF 2010]

Over the next day and a half, while everyone watching basketball I’m going to repost a number of the things that I wrote for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The ADIBF is the premiere professional fair for the Arab world, thanks in part to an arrangement with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Everyone involved with the ADIBF is amazing, and the events, opportunities, meetings, etc., are all really interesting. And being able to see Abu Dhabi and Dubai is fascinating in and of itself.

This piece is from the IPA Copyright Convention that took place just prior to the start of the ADIBF.

Is anyone surprised that the most raucous panel at this year’s IPA was the one about Google? Without a Google representative on the panel, it was a lot easier to question tactics, and rally around the idea that the proposed Google Books Settlement isn’t as fair as it could be.

The panelists all did a fantastic job in evenhandedly explaining the real pros of what Google is doing (or has done) in creating a database of 12 million books, and the potential dangers of ceding control to a multinational corporation, even if said corporation swears to “Not Be Evil.”

Personally, I love Google. My Internet experience is totally guided by a reliance on Google Reader. My Gmail is 10,000 times more efficient and savvy than my crappy Rochester.edu account. I use it to search. I double-check quotes from the books I publish in Google Book Search. I think the algorithm works pretty well. I like the way Google changes its logo every day. And, to be honest, I want Google to provide me with access to all the books in the world, and I want them to use the full text of these books to better enhance my searches.

And although I would (or rather, just did in the hallway outside of the Press Room) argue that it’s hypocritical to get all up in arms about privacy and multinational dystopias at this point in time after giving up so much control and power to corporations, I am willing to admit that the Google Books Settlement is a flawed document. That it uses slippery terms and general ignorance in a way that will probably result in Google doing “evil” things and will definitely alter copyright for the rest of eternity.

This is neither the time nor the place to really debate the merits of Google’s overall plan to dominate the world (did I mention how much I like Google Earth? And how the Google Maps program on my iPhone is totally rad?), or the possible benefits for civilization that could be derived from a universal, digital library. Or even to try and explain the history and intricacies of the Google Books Settlement. (Seriously, I think you need to devote a month to reading all the briefs, opinions, statements, and editorials, to really have a sense of what’s going on here. But what’s clear from everyone and everything is that IT IS BIG. And will have far-reaching and long-lasting impact on not just copyright law, but society as a whole.)

This is the time to sing the praises of the four panelists who did an excellent job in framing the debate, in raising questions about the specific points of the Google Settlement, and who more than adequately described to all of the foreign publishers in attendance what this U.S.-based court decision (does anyone outside of the U.S. even know what a “Class Action Lawsuit” really is?) will mean to them.

Lois Wasoff—an attorney-at-law in the States—broke down the Settlement in a very concise and illuminating way, highlighting both the potential benefits (such as the creation of a Book Rights Registry), and the concerns that have been vocalized by the various groups of opponents. These same concerns popped up in the presentations by Marybeth Peters—Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, USA—and by Christine de Mazieres—Chief Executive Officer of the French Publishers Association. Namely, that there are antitrust issues at stake here (would Google be the only company with access to so-called “orphan” books? or is this truly a non-exclusive agreement?), and questions about whether the U.S. Congress should be making decisions as large as this, which will change copyright forever.

The general consensus among the speakers—and the audience—was one of wariness. That Google, for all it’s “non-evil” rhetoric, could not be completely trusted. That fishy things were under the legalese. That copyright was being violated, but that rather than try and put the kibosh on Google’s practices, it was smarter to try and negotiate some “fair” settlement. That no one could know how this would all play out in the future (will small publishers actually benefit by being able to reach a much larger audience than they currently have access to? Will Google take the world’s knowledge, firewall it, and only allow access to the wealthy?), but that we had to be cautious.

Of all the events I’ve seen at this year’s IPA Copyright Symposium, this may have been the most informative and engaging. It’s a debate that strikes at the heart of so much of modern life—instant access vs. information control, intellectual property vs. information wants to be free—and gets people riled up. Especially if you hurl stones as a faceless multinational. Everyone may be jacked into Google, but everyone also loves an underdog.

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