Reuters recently reported that a US court had suggested that "many authors could benefit" from Google's plan to scan books. Some supportive commenters over at The Register quickly jumped at the opportunity to agree that Google knew what was best for those silly authors who resisted their work being posted without permission or recompense for the benefit of the computer industry.
To be fair, the second comment on The Register's article gets right to the point of whether it should be up to authors to decide how they publicise and exploit their work, or up to aggregrators like Google. Numerous businesses use free samples to publicise their work, ranging from fragments of bread in a dish at my local bakery to blasting out ad-supported music on national radio stations. But I'm pretty sure my local baker decides what and how much bread to put on the counter, not some multinational bread information aggregator that doesn't actually bake or sell any bread itself.
Google itself maintains that its service represents a fair use of the books that it scans. Fair use (and similar provisions in other countries' copyright laws) imply that there is some significant public benefit in the copying being done, and/or no significant harm being done to the copyright holder. It's certainly conceivable that Google could indeed do something in the public interest here, even if it serves its own interest at the same time. But that remains to be established by the court.
All this is beside the point, however, for computer enthusiasts desperate to believe that artists could thrive if only they would allow computer users to enjoy the fruits of artists' labour without having to pay for it.
A little while ago, a Conversation article from Karl Schaffarczyk directed readers to Birgitte Andersen's 2010 article Shackling the Digital Economy Means Less For Everyone in support of the notion that "it is widely accepted that people download music and other content due to the failure of the market to deliver what the consumer wants." I couldn't find any such statement in Andersen's article, much less any evidence for it. I did, however, find plenty of selective citation from the literature on the effect of copyright infringement on sales, and unsubstantiated assertions about "outdated business models" of the music industry and (unspecified) "revolutionary business models" of the computer industry, just as I've previously commented on for The Social Interface.
It may nonetheless be true that the market has not offered what Schaffarczyk, Andersen and other consumer-oriented commentators want, if what they want is free access to books and music. But a successful market needs to offer benefits to both the consumers and the producers, and no amount of inserting computer companies into the pipeline between them will make free labour appeal to producers.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that Google had recognised Palestine by replacing the name "Palestinian Territories" with "Palestine" on Google's page for the state (or whatever term Israel would prefer that we use).
I'm sure I'd be amongst the first to say that news outlets of all sorts — even the ABC — present plenty of stories that are of no real consequence to anyone. This particular non-story, however, brought me back to an issue that I also encountered in news outlets' description of a widespread cartographic error as an "IT glitch" due to its existence in Google Maps: why should it be newsworthy that Google repeats some information or decision made by its sources?
Google itself is quoted in the Palestine article as saying, modestly enough, that "We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries. In this case, we are following the lead of the UN." Google is an aggregator of information after all, not a creator of it. Yet Google's "recognition" of Palestine is news for the ABC.
The Register's coverage of the same story makes more of Israel's opinion that "this change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private Internet company in international politics". Israel's reaction is arguably more of a story than Google's change itself. At the risk of having the Israeli foreign ministry releasing similar indignant statements about this blog, though, it begs the question of why the Israelis think it worth commenting on Google's application of a UN decision. (Their real argument is presumably with the UN, who made the decision in the first place, and I'm not going to go there.)
Google is a wealthy and powerful company, to be sure, and the actions of the wealthy and powerful are newsworthy enough in many circumstances. But are news outlets doing themselves or anyone else (bar Google) any favours by reporting as if Google is the final arbiter of all human knowledge and convention?
I recommend to my students that, when doing research, they seek out the original source of some item of information in order to critique and verify it. The difference between primary and secondary sources was, after all, a high school topic for me. But I suppose that they might feel justified in ignoring me when they see that they could get jobs reporting about Google search results.