Siva Vaidhyanathan First Monday Podcast Transcript September 2007

Joy: Welcome to First Monday Podcasts. I’m Joy Austria...

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah.

Joy: Look up the word “copyright” in the dictionary these days and you’ll find a picture of cultural historian and media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan.

AJ: Siva is the author of Copyrights and copywrongs: The rise of intellectual property and how it threatens creativity (New York: New York University Press, 2001), The Anarchist in the library: How the clash between freedom and control is hacking the real world and crashing the system (New York: Basic Books, 2004) and most recently co–edited Rewiring the “nation” The place of technology in American studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). He has taught at a number of academic institutions including Columbia University, New York University and starting this fall Siva begins teaching classes as an associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia.

Joy: This past May Siva visited the campus of the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies and Center for Information Policy Research. He gave the 2007 Ted Samore Lecture — “The Googlization of Everything: Digitization and the Future of Books.” Siva’s speech explored his reservations about the Google Books Project.

AJ: First Monday Podcasts caught up with Siva to talk about Google Books and its potential implications on the state of copyright. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Siva: My pleasure. This is a nice opportunity.

Joy: Your 2007 article for the University of California — Davis Law Review [1] is entitled “The Googlization of Everything and the Future of Copyright,” and it basically outlines your opposition to the Google Library Project. Can you summarize your arguments against the Google project, specifically how exactly Google’s work is going to, quote, “threaten to unravel everything that is good and stable about the copyright system”?

Siva: Google’s copyright argument is problematic in the following ways. Google wants courts to rule that their project of scanning in millions of copyrighted books and then placing them on their search service in highly cut up form, in other words offering merely snippets of the entire book should qualify as a fair use of the copyrighted work. That requires a pretty big leap in terms of what fair use means, for a couple of reasons.

Fair use is suppose to be deployed on a case by case basis. In this particular case, Google wants courts to make a general rule about fair use and accept that the initial scanning of millions of copyrighted books should be irrelevant to the concerns of the court, and that the copyright issue should be based entirely on the user experience.

So I have a number of problems with that legal argument, but it basically comes down to this: Fair use is one the few aspects of copyright law that protects and preserves the rights of individuals to use copyrighted works freely and easily and without anxiety and without permission or payment. It brings breathing room into copyright. It allow copyright to work without cracking down on basic and necessary uses like education and criticism and commentary and parody.

But to lay this huge experiment, this many million of books on a rather and rickety and unpredictable system like fair use is actually very unfair to fair use. And what I’m afraid of is that Google will certainly lose in court, and what will happen is courts will generate an indelicate view of fair use, a highly restricted view of fair use and will ultimately reign in a lot of future experiments. That’s problem number one and that’s the legal problem I have with Google’s experiment.

The fact is this is a massive privatization of a public good. And Google is essentially getting all of this stuff for free without any sort of quality control built into the system.

AJ: If Google loses in court what effect could it have on open access or university initiatives to create similar projects?

Siva: So one of my big fears is that if Google either settles out of court and decided not to digitize all these copyrighted works in such an aggressive fashion, or loses in court, then every other player is going to be coward away from doing this. In other words, it’s going to be that much harder to convince libraries that they should be doing it. It’s going to be that much harder to convince the other open access advocates, like Brewster Kahle, to push forward and digitize copyrighted material.

There’s going to be a serious impediment and a large level of fear there. So that’s why this entire venture that Google is putting forth is legally risky. Now I am 99 percent sure Google is going to lose this case for a variety of complicated reasons. But, in that event, we’re going to be set back in some serious ways. It’s going to be that much harder to imagine a global digital library.

Joy: Besides the legal problem, is there anything else you find problematic with Google’s Book Project?

Siva: The fact is this is a massive privatization of a public good. It is a massive privatization of years of collection development, years of choice and investment by the public and by librarians in these collections. And Google is getting all of this stuff essentially for free without any sort of quality control built into the system.

Google’s not required to ensure that the search engine that would guide people to these books actually delivers good results. Google is not required to make sure that the scanning process actually gets every page of every book and makes it all clear. There are no requirements that Google use metadata effectively or the metadata certainly already attached to books. There’s no guarantee that Google will offer people the best possible results for their queries. And most importantly, Google does not do anything to protect user confidentiality and in the world of book searching this is a really important factor. It is an essential part of librarianship. It is an essential part of the ethics and policies of libraries. Users should not feel that their use of any sort of research material might someday come to light and be misinterpreted as some sort of nefarious activity. We should feel comfortable in our information seeking habits. And I’m afraid that Google corralling so many of our information seeking habits puts us all at risk.

Now I am 99 percent sure Google is going to lose this case ... in that event, we’re going to be set back in some serious ways. It’s going to be that much harder to imagine a global digital library.

AJ: But doesn’t Google already run the risk of losing their status as good for humanity in the essential public service if they don’t improve this type of search engine? Isn’t it just growing pains?

Siva: Google has been redescent about what standards it will use. I have some basic questions for Google and one of the key ones is what puts a book at the top of a results list? Why is Book A more relevant than Book B? Google has been unwilling to discuss those sorts of principles, let alone the specifics of what drives particular results to their results pages.

It’s nice to believe that a company like Google which has the best possible programmers and some of the smartest people in the world working for it is on top of this. But I think we need more than faith. I think this is too important a project to put into a black box. And essentially Google is a black box in almost everything it does.

Google is an odd company. It’s growing in importance almost to the level of being a public utility. And it’s business model is based on knowing everything it can about us, it’ users. And therefore, because it is a black box, because it’s highly secretive, because it relies so much on proprietary standards and information, we’re in this odd situation where this one private company — publicly traded company — now is in the process of knowing everything it can about us and forbidding us knowing anything about it. And that’s a very unhealthy situation.

All of my work is geared to this question of cultural democracy and information democracy. I think what I’m adding to this conversation ... is emphasize that it’s more than quantity it is about quality.

Joy: So what’s the alternative? Who are the major players, what are the major policy points?

Siva: I think this is an important enough project where we need to have a nationwide effort. We have to have a publicly funded effort. Guided, perhaps led by the Library of Congress, certainly a consortium of public university libraries could do just as well to do it.

We’re willing to do these sorts of big projects in the sciences. Look at how individual states are rallying billions of dollars to fund stem cell research right now. Look at the ways the United States government, the French government, the Japanese government rallied billions of dollars for the Human Genome Project out of concern that all that essential information was going to be privatized and served in an inefficient and unwieldy way.

So those are the models that I would like to see us pursue. What saddens me about Google’s initiative, is that it’s let so many people off the hook. Essentially we’ve seen so many people say, “Great now we don’t have to do the digital library projects we were planning to do.” And many of these libraries involved in the Google project were in the process of producing their own digital libraries. We don’t have to do that any more because Google will do it for us. We don’t have to worry about things like quality because Google will take care of the quantity.

And so what I would like to see? I would like to see all the major public universities, public research universities, in the country gather together and raise the money or persuade Congress to deliver the money to do this sort of thing because it’s in the public interest, not because it’s in Google’s interest. If it really is this important we should be able to mount a public campaign, a set of arguments and convince the people with the purse strings that this should be done right.

Joy: What do you want people to take away from this lecture?

Siva: All of my work is geared to this question of cultural democracy and information democracy. And like so many of the people who champion what Google is doing, I share a desire to connect everybody in the world to the best possible information.

I think what I’m adding to this conversation and what I try to do in all my work is emphasize that it’s more than quantity it is about quality. This not something lost on librarians. They train themselves for years to be able to deliver good stuff not just more stuff. I think I’m adding an important element to the conversation that’s often missing from the newspaper accounts of what’s going on. If you read a newspaper account about whatever Google is up to, it reads like a sports story. It’s who’s going to win? Are the publishers going to win, is Google going to win? Without any real sense of what we’re getting out of the whole project.

So right now I’m working on a book about Google and the book project is just one element of it. But I want to examine all the different ways Google affects our lives and ultimately what the world looks like through the lens of Google. If we’re going to do that, if we’re going to approach Google in that way, and take it seriously, we can learn a tremendous about what our expectations are about information, about democracy, about citizenship. All of which gets filtered through the Internet these days and because most of us use Google as step one in our explorations of the Internet, Google has a tremendous effect on all of these questions.

This is a very young company and these are a very young set of questions and so I’m excited to be in at the beginning of this conversation. But I can see that this area is just going to get more interesting over the next five or ten years.



1. Siva Vaidhyanathan, 2007. “The Googlization of Everything and the Future of Copyright,” University of California Davis Law Review volume 40 (March), pp. 1207–1231, and at, accessed 5 September 2007.