The Perils of Convenience

Around the blogosphere, especially among gadget-obsessed early adopters, you hear a lot about what various content industries that have latterly gone digital “should be doing”. They (and sometimes me) justify everything from breaking DRM to piracy by saying that if the industry in question were only doing things right – making things convenient for said gadget-obsessed early adopters, and thereby everybody else – then they would have an alternative to cracking, pirating, dodging restrictions and other apparently nefarious deeds.

This doesn’t apply just to books. Rightly or wrongly, music, movies, games, books and software are all under threat because they haven’t adapted to the changing digital sales environment quickly enough. Some are doing better than others. And you can see from looking at a few examples that those that are recovering are often doing so because a single player has risen up and utterly monopolised the industry, making it easier for content producers to sell their product to people in a way they find convenient. This is true of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, and it’s becoming increasingly true of Amazon and the Kindle.

It’s also true of Google Book Search. For those who don’t know, Google Book Search is exactly what it sounds like. It allows you to input a string of text from any book that Google has in their database and find out what book it is, often giving you a chance to buy it or, if it is what’s called an ‘orphaned work’ (a book whose copyright owner cannot be located for some reason) it allows you to read the full text online for free.

Clearly this is an excellent state of affairs on one level, because it means that works previously abandoned to time can be rediscovered and shared with the world – and the revenues will eventually trickle back to authors and publishers. The problem, as Cory Doctorow points out in a recent Boing Boing post, is the way that Google acquired its massive database of books. It scanned them. Just bought a whole bunch of books and scanned them, then used its software to index the text. When the Authors’ Guild (the US one) found out what was happening, they sued Google. They have now reached a settlement, the details of which are complicated and not relevant to my point. This now means, as Doctorow points out, that the only way for another organisation to ever hope to compete with Google in both the indexing and searching of books and making orphaned books available to the public is to “illegally scan the books and then hope for a good outcome when slapped with a class-action suit by all the country’s publishers”.

So my question for all of you is this: is it worth it? Is the price of convenient, easy access to content and services worth the perils of a monopoly? There are a lot of people, for example, who’d like to see the Kindle succeed in the way the iPod has succeeded in the music world – and they aren’t all employees or stockholders of Amazon. Some people just want to be able to buy an ebook, and then not think about it. I love the idea of Google Book Search, but have we (or rather, the US Authors’ Guild, on our behalf) just invested in Google the may-as-well-be-exclusive use of all the world’s published knowledge? Or am I just being hyperbolic? (Spoiler: I usually am). What do you think?

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.