The internet’s leading business is currently scanning and digitising millions of books. Dominance of the web is not enough, the search giant now plans to become, in essence, the world’s biggest librarian and bookshop.

Now, regular readers of my posts and articles will know that I am
usually onside with Google. It’s frighteningly large and successful,
but anything that invests so much time and energy into important
projects like Google Earth is OK by me, except its plans for books…

For those who don’t know, Google is aiming
to make around 32m texts available online. Authors and
publishing houses will be able to register their work and receive 70%
of the sales and subscription income generated by them.

We are not just looking at a change in Google’s revenue streams, we are not even just looking at a new major player in online book selling. What we are looking at is Google’s total dominance of our literary heritage, and de facto copyright of everything.

The benefits

There are so many obvious benefits to be able to store and access literature online. This could be the biggest, most ambitious and most useful single project since the internet began.

It will almost certainly change lives; enabling access, aiding academia and freeing our literary heritage. One day, our grandchildren will be unable to believe that we once lived in a time when you couldn’t access the original Canterbury Tales complete with Chaucer’s personal notes from your phone.

Many books have been languishing out of print for years and this will change that. New generations will discover stories that have passed out of common memory.

The benefits of this project go far, far beyond commercial interests or convenience.

My concerns

Google’s idea is brilliant and the search engine is probably the only business that would be able to get away with such a sweeping copyright decision, something we’ll find out next month.

I do have some real concerns, however, which I know are shared by a number of other commentators and organisations.

Too important?

Is it not possible that something like this is simply too important to leave in the hands of a business? This is of historic importance to humankind and I believe should be an international project, ideally planned and controlled by governments, not directors and shareholders.

Google is immensely powerful and I am comfortable with that. I trust it not to distort the search results I have come to rely on, to showcase stories in Google News without political bias, and to photograph practically every street in the world and put the images online safely.

However, books are too important to risk this way. Admittedly, our literary heritage is already at the hands of commerce: many books have gone out of print because there was insufficient profit to made on them, and many authors have been exploited by unscrupulous publishing houses.

But if Google succeeds in this project then all these other commercial entities will die off, or adapt into very different organisations. I think it is likely that Google will end up without competition, sole guardian and key owner of our books.

Competition

My main concern is the power this would cede to Google, even if it does pay handsomely to settle the deal, but there are other issues too,

Online book retailers will suffer badly and it could well be the final blow for high street bookshops. I expect we’ll see an upsurge in attractive covers and free gifts to counteract the appeal of online, downloadable texts, but I do not know if it will be enough.

Google will have a monopoly to end all monopolies. It is hard to see how Microsoft or anyone else could compete (in fact, Microsoft recently abandoned its own book scanning plan) (I’m not saying Microsoft is entirely innocent here).

The world’s biggest search engine turned ten recently, amid much debate over whether or not it has become too powerful. Far from resting on its laurels, the business seems determined to drive new innovation in endlessly new areas and that should be admired. But books are too important for one company to control.