Saturday, September 12, 2009 / Columnists / Christopher Caldwell - Google writes its own rules

Another timely Google Books perspective; read the full article 

Those who believe Google is building a bookstore, not a library, have focused on whether the settlement hinders competition. It does. But is competition so necessary in this context? You do not automatically gain when you replace a unified service with a fragmented one, as travellers on the post-privatisation British railways will have remarked. Google’s digitisation project is a matter of organising products that already exist, not of offering incentives for the creation of new ones, which is the usual justification for market competition. It is easy to justify monopolies operating in the public interest. We call them utilities. It is harder to justify monopolies’ remaining in private hands. If $125m is all it costs to facilitate a hugely beneficial cyber-library, then, as we said, who needs Google? If the government will not pay for it, some philanthropist could provide the seed money, as Andrew Carnegie did for hundreds of libraries across the US and Britain.

Neither privacy nor competition is the main reason for scepticism about the Google books settlement. The problem is that the arrangement is a usurpation. It is a false analogy to compare Google Books, as some defenders of the settlement do, to Amazon’s Kindle system of e-books. Authors and publishers participate in Kindle by granting Amazon permission to publish in that format. Google’s system would dispense with such permission. It is thus a change in the regime of property rights. The settlement authorises a large corporation to manage the rights of authors it cannot locate, and to justify itself with vague invocations of our cultural heritage. / Columnists / Christopher Caldwell - Google writes its own rules

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