Saturday, November 26, 2005

Google vs. print

One of last night's dinner guests runs a small publishing company, so I took the opportunity to ask what she thought of the Google Print controversy. She was unambiguously on the anti-Google side, but I didn't think much of her reasons, which amounted to:

- It's a copyright violation to scan the whole book (arguably true, but the argument applies equally to scanning web pages, so if this were to hold it would put search engines out of business, not good for anybody).

- Serving up excerpts is not fair use (seems false to me though I suppose there's some legal case to be made)

- Once they serve up excerpts they will then go ahead to serve up entire copyrighted works without paying the copyright holders (certainly a false argument; they could obviously be sued if they started doing that).

- It's rude of them to mess with copyrighted works without asking permission first (not a legal argument, but true as far as it goes. Google seems to be pissing people off unnecessarily).

- Google is a huge behemoth with a $400 stock price, whereas small-press publishers is a tiny, marginal, we-do-it-for-love operation, and they are afraid of getting crushed under the wheels.
This last point, which is not really an argument, is probably at the root of it. Publishers are scared, and rightlly so, of Google and the entire Internet, which is a threat to their business model. Publishers are middlemen and the net generally serves to drive them out of business with much cheaper and often nbetter alternatives (like Craigslist is doing to newspaper classifieds). I happen to work for a company that is owned by one of the largest publishers in the world, and they are scared, so I guess it's reasonable for a one-person company that is run out of a living room to be scared too.

Publishers are not mere middlemen, they can add a lot of value by finding, nurturing, and promoting authors. A lot of the infrastructure of the counterculture is associated with threatened old-media microinstitutions like independent bookstores and small publishers and magazines. These marginal economic activities provide a living to a multitude of authors and middlemen. If all this is replaced with a structure that consists of unpaid content creators (bloggers) and huge technocorporate behemoths (Google, telecoms) that is not necessarily an improvement. Content may be more diverse, but all the money flows to the big entities rather than the creators.

1 comment:

goatchowder said...

Excellent post.

A while ago, in my travels in high-tech marketing and in the printing business (and on the periphery of the music business), I found that technology not only eliminates middlemen by dramatically reducing the cost of infrastructure, but this cost reduction also removes the economic basis of the *producers* as well... it seems your publisher friend (and employer) are discovering that too.

In the long run this means the infrastructure providers are economically well-rewarded for their innovation, but it also is a huge boon for amateurs and those who want to become producers but don't have the capital which used to be required in order to do so. We are rewarded in a non-economic way: we are allowed to play without having to pay.

Hence, home studio gear, digital photography, Xerox machines, MP3's, Free Software, and blogging, just to name a few. An explosion of amateurs producing indy CD's, 'zines, art, movies, a "cambrian explosion" of software, and blogs of an increasingly high quality.

The old middlemen get whacked (print shops large and small, publishers, record companies and movie studios, "brick and mortar" distributors and retailers), and, with them, a lot of smaller "content producers" as well. Profits accrue to the companies delivering the new, cheap infrastructure: Roland, Yamaha, Google, Xerox, Canon, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, etc. Everyone else sees reduced costs, but also reduced profits. Only the innovative new entrants into the middleman space (iTunes?) find some way to turn those low costs into profits. Alas, all but the very largest of the old-skool operators are toast.

The howls of pain are the same ones made by 1980's-era software engineers at Stallman, by Metallica at Napster, by 1970's-era print shops at Xerox, by recording studios at Roland and Yamaha, by professional photographers at Canon, by 1990's symphony musicians at samplers, by 1970's rock bands at disco, etc.

Professionals lose, hobbyists and amateurs win, and middlemen and smaller producers are flushed out and replaced with a much smaller number of those who eagerly leverage the new technology.

Obviously it's not healthy to have a few large corporations end up with a stranglehold over, well, anything. Are technology infrastructure monster-corporations themselves exposed to the threat of being replaced with something new, lower-cost, and more available? I'm not sure. But looking at Microshaft running scared from Linux and Open Source gives me hope.