Curling up with a good . . . Google book

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KAI RYSSDAL: You can do just about anything on your computer or other personal electronic device. You can e-mail, listen to music, watch movies. What you still really can't do, though — all these years into the digital economy — is sit down and read a good book. E-books never really managed to catch on. But Google has an idea that could help — or hurt — depending on how you look at it. The search engine company's on a quest to build a universal library. Making deals with universities and publishers to scan and put on line everything from "Moby Dick" to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." It's not without controversy. The phrase copyright law comes to mind.

Jeffrey Toobin updates the Google Books program in the latest issue of the New Yorker.


JEFFREY TOOBIN: All these libraries have long been interested in digitizing their collections. They're worried about preservation of their collections. They want to be able to distribute electronically. So, Larry Page went to the University of Michigan and said, "Look, we will digitize your collection for free, give you a copy to do with what you want, but we will take a copy of all 6 million volumes in your collection and put it at Books.Google.com and start the business of digitizing all the printed record of human civilization.

RYSSDAL: They also went to publishers, though, didn't they and got a deal with them?

TOOBIN: Right. There are two parts to the Google books program. The Google library program is the controversial part because that's where Google is copying the libraries of Harvard, of Michigan, of Stanford. But when they're copying copyrighted books, they're not paying for them. Separately, they have approached and made deals with virtually every major American publisher where the publishers have given them access to books, given them digital copies, allowed them to scan the books and in return, when you link to one of their books on the Web, you can immediately buy it. The publishers are happily, gladly part of that part of the program, but they're suing to stop the library part of the program.

RYSSDAL: Is this a lawsuit really just as prelude to some kind of settlement?

TOOBIN: That seems to me like the most likely scenario. That would be good for the publishers. That would be good for Google. The question is, would it be good for the public at large? Is this a settlement that says that everyone who wants to scan a book has to pay the publisher? In a perverse way, that would wind up helping Google a great deal because what that means is that Google would be the first person to do this, having invested all this time and money in digitizing the world's library, but whoever came next would have to pay the same money that Google did and that would create a tremendous barrier to entry.

RYSSDAL: As much money as they have, it is a for-profit corporation, Google. How are they going to make money scanning these books and just slapping them up there on the Internet?

TOOBIN: They say they're going to make money the same way they make money through their Web searches: by selling advertising. However, they've promised that anytime a library search comes up, anytime a book comes up from one of their library searches, they will not have any advertising. So the revenue stream does not seem very clear to me. However, Google seems to have this messianic belief that if they have the best search engine with the most complete information, somehow they'll make money out of that and so far they've been right.

RYSSDAL: Let me get this down to the lowest common denominator before I let you go. You are an author. If you go to Amazon.com and type in Jeffrey Toobin, you get a bunch of books. How do you feel about the prospect of your sweat and labor being out there on the Web for anybody to read?

TOOBIN: I struggled with that very issue as I stared at my books when I went to look for them on the Web site and basically I thought Google is bringing so many new eye balls to books that in some cases, sadly, are out of print, that the opportunity to bring those books back to the marketplace and potentially sell some that are essentially forgotten in the marketplace is worth it to me. I found myself sympathetic to and supportive of Google Books.

RYSSDAL: Jeffrey Toobin's article in the New Yorker on the Google books program will be, I'm sure, online at some point. For now, it's just in the paper edition. Mr. Toobin, thanks a lot for your time.

TOOBIN: Thanks, Kai.

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