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Back Talk Requested: Google Books a Monopoly? Perhaps, but where’s the Harm?

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | April 4, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

The New York Times carried a story this morning, March 4, about a settlement Google is making with publishers and authors regarding re-publication of a vast number of “orphan books” on line. Under the settlement, copyright owners would receive royalties when Google makes electronic copies available to readers and scholars. These books are no longer in print. Publishers, except in rare cases, don’t reprint old books because there is no money to be made and the authors consequently don’t see any revenues either. The Google settlements represent found money for both of them. Electronic copies of the individual titles are not very valuable to Google, but ownership of the aggregate could be quite valuable.

Google’s “Project Gutenberg” is intended to save billions of publications in libraries and other collections from being lost and to make them available at a mouse click to a world-wide readership. This is a laudable goal, perhaps one worthy of public appreciation on the level of the Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, some observers see a threat to the public good in Google acquiring the rights to so many publications. They make dire predictions of a knowledge monopoly. But Google responds that others can do the same thing it has done — copy books, wait to be sued and then settle.

Google’s so-called monopoly is the product of its willingness to spend vast sums of its own money to create an electronic library of libraries. To the extent that each of the paper volumes being copied still exist (and could be published again) it is not depriving the world of anything. Paper is an organic substance, subject to decay and destruction by fire, water and other natural causes. In fifty years, many of these books will be impossible (or nearly impossible) to locate. Then Google or its successor will have a de facto monopoly as to those titles. In time, the list of books that can be found only on Google will grow. Some of them, for reasons not presently appreciated, will become immensely valuable.

So what? Do we resent monasteries because books copied during the dark ages are priceless treasures today? Would that they had preserved more. The task of preserving the writings of our civilization is just as daunting, because of its vast scope. It needs to be done. If an institution like government is not paying the cost, there has to be a profit in it. Frankly, I would trust Google to do the job better than any government.

Monopoly economics is based upon a model of scarcity. There is still only one public sewer in any locality, so we all must pay its rates. But monopolies created in the past are going out of style, not so much through government intervention as through rapid changes in technology. Railroads compete with other forms of transportation and shipment. The owner of telephone wires must compete with wireless technology. The owner of television cables must now compete with the telephone company. New wireless technologies are emerging to compete with them both. Even Google must watch its back, lest some newcomer finds a way to grab a big slice of its market, just as Google the newcomer did to others, not so many years ago.

But Google-nomics and the electronic knowledge industry generally is based on a different model — one of plenty. Words and other conveyors of ideas can be reproduced electronically for a tiny cost. The profit is in volume. Thus, Google doesn’t charge the consumer a penny for information. It charges advertisers for the right to add their commercial message to the margins of the pages that consumers access without charge. This economic model has worked spectacularly well for Google and there is no reason to expect that it will be abandoning it. However, if Google wants to charge, it will have to compete with Amazon.com and a growing host of others who are providing current books in electronic formats. Competition takes many forms; it is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Yes, competition may result in electronic media completing its conquest of paper media. This process is occurring steadily with newspapers and magazines. It may be inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to read a paper book or a paper magazine in a decade or two. The question is whether you will go to the trouble and expense. Even today, a century after the near-universal adoption of automotive transportation, you can still find a horse to ride.

Back Talk Requested.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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