Transcript: The Battle For the Books

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Interview with Jeff Roberts, author
The Battle for the Books: Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library

For podcast release Monday, February 25, 2013

KENNEALLY: Courtrooms, like football fields, are stages for transformation. At times, opposing sides clash over principle. Otherwise, they fight for profit. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, umpires, and cheerleaders. At the conclusion of such contests, we hardly even recognize the players, for all the accusations and the revelations.

Hello, and welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book. Writing about what he calls the OJ Simpson of copyright trials, Jeff Robert recounts, in The Battle for the Books, a nearly decade long contest, pitting East Coast against West Coast, Manhattan Island versus Silicon Valley, technology upstarts taking on publishing elites. The Battle for the Books – Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library, reminds us of the Titan-like ambitions and the ensuing legal donnybrook on a global scale among authors, publishers, librarians, and academics.

It ends on a world utterly changed, and forever, and in ways unforeseeable to the parties when they began their war.

Jeff Roberts joins me now from New York. Jeff, welcome to Beyond the Book.

ROBERTS: Hi, Chris. Nice to be here.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted you have a chance to us today, and we should tell people, Jeff, that you’re covering legal and media news for paidContent and GigaOM. And prior to working at paidContent, you reported for Reuters in Paris and New York. Jeff Roberts studied law at McGill University in Montreal, clerked at the Federal Court, and has passed the bar in New York and Ontario, so well-qualified indeed to tell us about this remarkable legal battle.

And I suppose, one way to give people a sense of the size of this case, the original code name that Google gave, what became known as the Library Project, was codename Ocean. Why don’t you tell us about the very first days of this?

ROBERTS: Well, I mean, the Google guys have always been very ambitious. You don’t go out to start Google and index the world’s information unless you’re not super-ambition. And since – in their grad student days, they worked in the library with – helping digitization process, I think it’s occurred to them, hey, let’s digitize everything.

And at the time, I think it’s important to know, there were scanning projects, but librarians I’ve talked to said the pace they were going, it would have taken more than 1,000 years. So then the Google guys looked about, just decided to do it all. And this would have been more than 10 years ago, when they were still grad students and Google was still coming together.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it was as natural to them to think about it in these terms, as saying that it would be better to get, as you put it, your image was a striking one for me, to get your water from a faucet rather than from a well. I mean, to them, struggling with finding books in library stacks was really very much part of the old world, and they lived in the new world.

ROBERTS: Exactly. There was sort of this – some called them almost radical Silicon Valley visions to many people. I mean, we cherish libraries and books. But I think increasingly, even to me and others, the idea of going to the stacks does start seem – is starting to seem a bit archaic, especially when we’ve had databases at our fingertips. But for these guys, I think they’ve always thought this was, and they saw the future this way even more than 10 years ago.

KENNEALLY: Absolutely. And you know, I mentioned in my introduction about the ways that things have changed over the 10 years since this all began, or more than 10 years. I am reminding people that in 2002, Google was not yet a public company. It was still very much in a battle for top space in the search engine category with Yahoo! I think about how much has changed since then, of course.

Initially, when they began approaching – the Google founders, as well as their technicians, began approaching the libraries and librarians for their books, this particular project was seen as something of a blessing.

ROBERTS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think – because Google, at that time, wasn’t a very intimidating company. If people had heard of them, they thought they were kind of neat. And also, this looked like a great way to push the digitization efforts forward. But then things sort of spun a lot bigger, and very quickly.

KENNEALLY: Right, and I think that’s the story that you recount in the book, the ways that Google itself has changed over time, the ways that our conception of libraries and books have changed, and in particular, though, the transformation of Google is really striking. They went from being that kind of cute little upstart, kind of quirky but sort of a blessing to us all by providing us with those great search results, and that was in 2002, before they went public.

By the time that the lawsuit that’s at question here in the book was first brought to court in 2005, something had begun to change, and what was that?

ROBERTS: Well, I think just the scale of Google. People started realizing what it could do, and I think some people became very afraid of it, too. It’s an enormous company that wants to know everything. And at the same time, I think the book industry was sort of being turned on its head. So it’s sort of a confluence of hopes and fears, and people just getting accustomed to this radical new technology.

KENNEALLY: You have a wonderful way with a phrase, and as you described this collective fear about Google, it was really sort of displacing their own fears about – everybody’s fears, authors, publishers, librarians, the public’s fears about the digital future, displacing them onto Google itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah, and I think any time there’s a technology or company of such import, it’s going to be met with mixed feelings. I mean, I think when cars first started appearing on the roads, I don’t think everyone loved them. I think they probably made a lot of people afraid of this radical, mechanized future. Same with assembly lines and so on. Because when things like this come along, they facilitate new conveniences, but they also displace ways of life, and sometimes some very kind of cherished ways of life.

So I think Google, this time around, that’s what’s happening.

KENNEALLY: Right, and Google made an effort throughout the very early days of this project, as you tell us in the book, to fly under the radar. They have a kind of a preoccupation with secrecy, and they must have been aware that this was ultimately going to lead them to a challenge in the courtroom over copyright infringement. Tell us more about that, how they tried to stay under the radar, and then how they responded once the case came to court.

ROBERTS: Well, it was certainly bold. I know Ken Auletta has said they were taken by surprise, having the lawsuit. I’m pretty sure they saw it coming all along. But what they did, it was rather shrewd. They just cooperated with these libraries, kept a bunch of non-disclosure agreements, and no one really knew what they were doing, and then suddenly emerged with this sort of fait accompli, it’s like, oh, look what we’ve done.

And that, I think, is what really alarmed a lot of people, both because they didn’t understand what was happening, because it did seem a sort of affront to traditional respect, to serve literary control, and just the sheer scale of it. So they presented it, and then all of a sudden, it looked like this was what was going to happen, and then they met some pretty ferocious opposition.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and this dichotomy, this sort of Super Bowl, if you will, between publishing and the East Coast and the Manhattan elites – and I’ll put that in quotes – against the West Coast and Silicon Valley and Stanford University, smart kids and all of that, whiz kids. It really kind of brought out the best and worst in publishing and technology.

ROBERTS: Yeah, I would say so, because there’s a lot of money and prestige and egos on the line. And you’re right, that is sort of what it was. It was, you know, the kind of literary establishment of New York and Boston against the kind of radical whiz kids of Silicon Valley. And it’s hard to discuss this without kind of putting a – like, with – I used the terms, putting a value judgment on it, in the sense that Silicon Valley can sound bad, or old publishing elite can sound bad. But I think both sides’ views were very legitimate, and I don’t really side with one over the other. I think they’re both two immensely smart, prestigious, sort of realms that came together very quickly in an unexpected way.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and we are talking right now with Jeff Roberts, the author of Battle for the Books – Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library. He covers legal and media news for paidContent and GigaOM.

And Jeff, we don’t want to recount the whole case itself. We’ve done that here on Beyond the Book over time, since the very beginning of the lawsuit in 2005, and the announcement of the settlement in 2008. And one could make a wisecrack about this particular case, when is a settlement not a settlement? When it’s the Google book case settlement.

Very briefly, describe for us what it was that essentially blew the settlement apart.

ROBERTS: I think it’s, as Judge Chin said, they sort of crafted a forward-looking business arrangement, because the principles of class action law, you’re supposed to kind of make good for a past harm, and not to kind of bind the future with your contracts.

But the settlement itself was extraordinarily clever, and to be honest, I think it might have advanced e-publishing a lot more than where it is now, if it had gone to – if it had gone into effect. And it’s also an irony about how quickly things change in technology. When’s the last time you hear about Google being a monster in the publishing space? And this – in the interim, Amazon has completely taken over and dominated. So those fears of Google controlling every e-book almost seems sort of novel at this point.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and that’s the fascinating part is, I read the book, Jeff, I was reminded of the ways that, rather like a football game, the tide can turn, and can turn in multiple ways throughout the course of four quarters. So by 2011, the tide has turned again, and Google is in a far different position, not only from where it was in 2002, but from where it was in 2005 or even 2008.

I wonder if you could sort of talk about your perception of Google’s – if they weren’t surprised by the lawsuits, were they surprised by what happened to the settlement?

ROBERTS: I think they were probably profoundly disappointed, because – I mean, I think – again, when this is debated, there is such acrimony, especially from publishers or tech people. But I think there was best intentions on both sides. Google, I think, thought they had created something immensely useful, and I think it probably hurt them and surprised them to see how ferociously it was attacked.

And also, for all it’s portrayed as grassroots authors rebelling against monster Google, I mean, it was a very well orchestrated corporate campaign, put together by Amazon and Microsoft to sandbag the settlement.

KENNEALLY: I guess the point is that, as you mentioned, no one really sort of positions Google as in the publishing space any longer, but they are still scanning books, I understand.

ROBERTS: Yes, at a sort of – fairly modest pace, at this point. And now I think the really intriguing question is, they scanned more than, I think, 20 million by now. What’s going to happen to all those books? I mean, because we can decry Google for doing it, but the fact remains, there’s a splendid corpus of information that’s now being locked up. And I think some publishers have a bit of a dog in the manger attitude, saying, well, if we can’t have it, no one can have it. Where I think the original Google book settlement would have really advanced the economy of digitizing that sort of – that stack of knowledge in books.

KENNEALLY: Right, well, it’s fascinating, because as you mentioned in the book, the original ambition was to create a kind of second Library of Alexandria, or only one that could not be burned to the ground. And so, now that library may exist, but it can only be the books, and it can only be viewed by, I suppose, a very small group of people at Mountainview.

ROBERTS: Exactly. And so, who’s going to get it? I mean, I know there’s a librarian at Harvard who is, I think, angling to get that whole corpus pushed into the Library of Congress, which might be a solution. But then again, I mean, Google might have a right to say, are we really obliged to become the world’s philanthropists, and make this donation?

So I mean, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens next, and then of course, Google, their motive isn’t – they never wanted to be a book retailer. Their interest is, of course, the searching that goes on with the books. Google, all they care about, what’s in the search box, and the books people search for is of immense interest and value to Google, so that’s their angle on it.

But at the same time, they have created a sort of marvelous corpus of information that for now remains locked up, and I think some people could regard that as a shame.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. It’s a fascinating irony. And Jeff Roberts, before we let you go, we’ll just remind people that the case isn’t over just yet. There is still litigation going on there, still a court schedule in Judge Chin’s courtroom.

ROBERTS: Yeah, well, it’s really funny. It’s now – part of it has gone up to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, on which Judge Chin now sits. He’s not going to hear it, of course. But I think now – and meanwhile, the publishers and Google have made peace, and the Authors Guild is sort of out there on a limb, holding Google’s foot to the fire. But you know, for now, it just seems it’s going to be tangled up in procedural snarls for at least another year, as far as I can see.

KENNEALLY: Right, well, Jeff, as a lawyer and as a reporter, how do you feel about the way this has turned out in the end? Are you disappointed yourself? It sounds like the people in Mountainview are. Do you feel as if covering the digital publishing space, we have gotten a bit of a short stick here?

ROBERTS: A little bit. I mean, I think part of the problem is that it’s just the inability to access that splendid sort of pile of books. Wouldn’t it be fun to search in all of that? And knowing it’s just right there beyond our fingertips and we can’t get it, that, I think, is a shame. And I think the sooner we can access that and discover it and find business models around it, the better.

But for now, it’s almost like time is on hold or the future is on hold, while this sits in the courtroom.

KENNEALLY: Jeff Roberts is the author of The Battle for the Books – The Inside Story of Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library. Jeff, thanks again.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows.

You can follow us on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, Copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.