At its own expense, Google as been scanning in books from various libraries with the ultimate goal of creating a massive online library. The books Google is particularly interested in are those which are being called "Orphans"-- those which have been neglected by author or publisher and haven't seen a new printing in a very long time. This isn't to say that Google is interested in publishing books outside of the copy write hold-- quite the opposite. Google is interested in books that still have retaining copy write. Their plan is to endow themselves with 37% of the profit and advertising revenue, while the authors and publishers receive the rest. However, as Google moves ever closer to the court settlement to do this, voices of opposition begin to grow. They believe that Google will have a stranglehold monopoly, and the process will be as harmful as it is good. That is at least my understanding of their complaint.
Within the past few months, I have often been thinking about the mark of success as it is defined by legacy. I believe it is the belief of society that if a person has contributed to society significantly than their legacy is assured. However, the more I see of the literary world, the less convinced I am of the truth of this. For instance, in the nineteen eighties, author Rachel Ingalls published a novella entitled Mrs. Caliban which a few years later would be called the greatest novel since WWII. Ingalls' would-be classic is currently out of print like much of her work, and the poor woman doesn't even have a wikipedia for her troubles. Another example would be John Collier, a novelist who came highly recommended to me by an older professor. When I began to look into Collier, I noticed that only two of his works (His Monkey Wife, and Francies and Goodnights) were still in print. One of them printed by the New York Review of Books which is doing an admirable job at bringing vanishing classics back into print.*
For art's sake, as well as for my own as a writer, I certainly hope that Google's initiative includes works of fiction and creative non-fiction. They are, more than medical, theoretical, or historical texts which become dated, the most important texts to be preserved. This isn't because the history contained in these other texts isn't significant, or won't be helpful in research but because today's society moves at break-neck pace. With the time frame for copy-write laws ever expanding, these lesser known authors will slip into oblivion before they're able to be included in Google's standard application or the likes of Project Gutenberg. It could well be argued that this removal from public consciousness is a kind of artistic Darwinism but what is important to consider is that even less than exceptional artists contribute something to the world through their influence on others. For instance, Robert Mayer's 1977 novel Superfolks is said to have been a source of inspiration for the super-hero deconstructions that followed it. Regardless of the novel's own merit, it is a link in development and to let it fall from history is to encourage gaps in evolutionary history, to go back to Darwin.
Of the opponents of this initiative, who's position is never made clear by the NYT, I have to wonder what in their minds is so destructive about this. In essence, what is being described isn't dissimilar to programs like JSTOR or other archival resources. The sources included in the archive are paid for the material, and JSTOR is paid by the institutions that use the program. The argument that Google will monopolize the market seems foolish-- the article even mentions Microsoft's interest in similar set-ups. Writers' seem to have every opportunity to withdraw their books from the program if they wish to. So where exactly is the problem? Publishers and authors will be paid for a book they have neglected to draw money from for some time. A writers' work will endure, at least longer than it would if it were to simply fall out of print. Institutions will have access to an infinitely large collection of books, as will readers through them. I am normally very skeptical of any company spokesman who describes their activities as a win for all involved, but I truly cannot find the downside to this.
This is not to say that I'm for digitization. I believe that books are meant to be held, to be contemplated, and to be cherished (besides, a book erasing doesn't sound nearly as horrific as a book burning). I do believe however, that tapable resources and legacies are very important. Otherwise, I don't suppose I'd see much use in this. Preserving information, and preserving art is instrumental for a society to move into the future. Google is providing an avenue for society to move father ahead, and until the opposition can present some stronger evidence against the plan--Amen to them. Perhaps those who are complaining can read something on presenting a case through Google books.
*I cannot recommend any of these books myself save for Mrs. Caliban as it's the only one I've mentioned that I've had the opportunity to read. On that note, Caliban is a wonderful book and should be read by everyone.