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Summary:

In the latest GigaOM Book, Jeff John Roberts provides an in-depth look at the twists and turns behind Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books. This excerpt examines why the company took on the project, which promised minimal financial benefit but plenty of legal headaches.

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Roughly a decade ago, Google hatched an audacious plan: The company would scan the world’s books and make them searchable. But by the time Google Books officially launched in 2004 (as Google Print), authors, publishers and others had already started to voice their concerns.

For our newest ebook, The Battle for the Books: Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library, GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts describes the technological and legal twists and turns of the story through the people affected by it: the authors who feared losing rights to their work, publishers facing lost revenue, technologists pushing for a world where all written knowledge is digital, and librarians who believe in open access to information. 

As the fight brewed over who owned the rights to the books Google was busily digitizing, one question in particular came to mind: Why was Google doing this? In this excerpt, Roberts travels to the Stanford University campus to find an answer. Buy the book today on AmazonBarnes & Noble or iTunes.

By definition, there is no market for millions of forgotten, out-of-print books; their contents offer endless opportunities for personal enrichment, but no equivalent financial richness. Scanning the world’s books presented, at best, a negligible business opportunity along with some very foreseeable legal headaches. So why did Google bother?

A good source on why Google does what it does is Stanford professor Terry Winograd, who supervised Larry Page’s doctoral studies and worked with both Google founders on the school’s Digital Library Project. Inside Winograd’s office in Stanford’s computer science building, shelves groaned with books, which, according to Winograd, are a technological obsolescence for others in the department.

Winograd is a quiet, mustached man with fluffy hair and a kind demeanor who is renowned for his pioneering work in artificial intelligence. There was little romantic in Winograd’s description of the genesis of the audacious book-scanning plan. He portrayed a project born equally of scholarly idealism and a cold, futuristic determinism. “It’s an idea Larry and Sergey had from the very beginning. It’s an idea that there’s knowledge out there,” he recalled. “It’s the intellectual, technological imperative.” Winograd would later repeat this phrase several times when describing how the Google founders see the world.

Multiple sources directly involved in the project confirmed that the push to scan the world’s books was not just one of the myriad eccentric projects (from driverless cars to a Mars map website) that constantly spring up all over Google. The book project was special.

“It came straight from Larry and Sergey,” said an author who took part in the negotiations between Google and the Authors Guild. “This is a project top management stayed close to and made clear that they wanted it done.”

While the Google founders’ determination to scan books is apparent, the personal motives of Brin and Page were less clear. Critics have pointed to the book scheme as proof the founders are greedy or power-hungry. New Yorker writer Ken Auletta and author of the book Googled, for instance, suggested the book scanning was simply pathological. In a 2010 phone interview, he explained to me, “They were just thinking as engineers do — Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that? They’re not businessmen. They’re cold engineers.”

Others have been harsher, suggesting that the Google founders’ decision to scan books without permission amounts to a type of technological barbarism rooted in a lack of culture or literary savoir faire.

Such caricatures are neither fair nor accurate. Winograd dismissed them by pointing out that both Page and Brin were raised in academic families that valued books and libraries.

As for Page and Brin themselves, they don’t seem to have cared whether the world thought they were visionaries or villains. They had a task to accomplish. As Winograd said, “I think if you ask them, [they’d say] this is going to get done, even in five years. This is the technological imperative — information must be searchable. They’re often more in tune to the technological imperative than to social barriers. To them, social barriers are transient.”

The authors and publishers who eventually sued Google over the book scanning would likely chafe at the notion that they are “transient social barriers,” but the Google founders’ attitude was not altogether unreasonable. A new technology had made it possible to create a vast library of the world’s books, so what was everyone waiting for?

With this mix of insouciance and technological urgency, Brin and Page began to put their grand plan into place.

Buy The Battle for the Books ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes. For more information on this and other GigaOM Books, go to pro.gigaom.com/books.

  1. Always like that- some people are running forward to change the world, and other stopping them. “Safety” evolution :)

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  2. So much scanning, so little quality control…

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