Alan Story: Creating the Google Domain

By [Friday, March 11th, 2011] at 3:12 pm

Alan Story, who writes about international equity in intellectual property regimes, has written an interesting new paper, Creating the Google Domain: A Critical Assessment of Google’s Book Search Scheme as part of the papers from the third CopySuth Workshop in Rio de Janeiro. As the title promises, it’s a genuinely “critical” look at the settlement. Here is a quote, from relatively early on, which gives the flavor of the project:

What GB has done is to link together Google, which usually does not benefit directly from copyright, and publishers, which do, into a distinctly non-benevolent digital package which benefits them both. For this US imperialistic project to succeed, the Internet’s ever expanding global net provides the best marketplace yet invented to allow Google’s corporate model to generate profits.

I suspect that if you are comfortable with Marxist analyses of the “capitalist system,” you are probably nodding your head at this point, and if you are not, you are probably shaking it. On its own, this paper is unlikely to change your point of view on this more fundamental question. Story’s is the point of view that says that advertising-supported services like Google are not “free” because the advertising raises the cost of the products being advertised; contrast this with the more liberal point of view that the cost of the advertising is its manipulation of users’ autonomy to trick them into buying things, or the economic point of view that the cost is fully borne by advertisers and consumers benefit.

Whatever one’s view, though, Story’s paper puts the settlement in a different global perspective than is typically done. Most of the objections came from what would generally be called the global North: rich, industrialized countries like France and Japan. But, as Story reminds us, the original version of the settlement had deliberately global reach, including over 100 countries in the global South.

Story also engages with Gillian Spraggs‘ work on the settlement from authors’ perspective. Here again, the critique is global: “A poet from Malawi cannot match the resources available to the Murdoch-owned publisher Harper Collins.” He emphasizes the relative powerlessness of authors, even within the North.

In the end, Story argues, the settlement simply reinforces the dominance of books and culture from the North; even “open access” is an agenda that reproduces existing power relations. He pulls out a line from Robert Darnton’s proposal for a national digital library that suggests the project would increase the United States’s “soft power.” This really is a critical perspective; in a sense, it argues that the debate over whether to approve or reject the settlement misses the point entirely.

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