New Zealand has finally woken up to the copyright implications of Google's project to digitise the world's libraries. Should we?

As published in the Guardian

We are living, as I've often written here, through the greatest literary paradigm shift since Caxton – or to put it another way, the biggest IT revolution in half a millennium. The scale of the readjustment the print media are having to make is so awesome, and so far beyond immediate comprehension, that perhaps the only honest position to adopt is quasi-Socratic, ie that we simply cannot know the truth of our situation.

A good example of our incapacity to do more, or better, than make retrospective readjustments to a changing intellectual environment is the Google digitisation initiative, which is back in the news again. Actually, it's not merely a good example. It's perfect.

About four years ago, when the project began, there was almost no comment, and certainly no uproar. A few broadsheets carried reports about the digitisation of millions of books from the world's great copyright libraries (Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, etc), but there was no sustained protest. The broadcasters – BBC, NPR and so on – hardly referred to it. A few thoughtful publishers, notably Nigel Newton at Bloomsbury, did sound the alarm, but most publishers and booksellers registered little more than a routine anxiety about what Google was up to and did absolutely nothing about forming a bloc against the search engine's ambitions. Burying their heads in the sand, they reverted to their core business, doing what they do best, which is to produce and sell new books.

Ripple dissolve to the present, and what do we find? As the Observer reported last week, Google's digitisation programme is virtually complete, and the American courts have, with some restrictions and caveats, given the programme a green light. Meanwhile, Google continues to protest (too much, you might say) that the widespread imputations of bad faith are misplaced and wrong.

Of course, now that the horse has bolted, several organisations, notably Amazon, are bravely stepping forward to close the stable door. It's too soon to say what the upshot of this manoeuvre has been, but some kind of reckoning is overdue.

As I see it, you can look at the Google digitisation project in one of two ways. Either it is a noble and public-spirited programme to make accessible to the common man and woman the treasures of British and American libraries, a quasi-philanthropic liberation of some priceless, and wrongly sequestered, content for the common good. Here, Google intersects, to powerful effect, with Lawrence Lessig's influential Free Culture movement.

Or you can describe what's happened as the greatest act of piracy in the western intellectual tradition, a despoliation of libraries on a par with Julius Caesar's accidental destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria in 48 BC.

It is too soon to judge which of these verdicts will prevail. But before we move lightly on to fresh topics, as we are bound to do, consider the implications of Google's actions in the case of New Zealand.

In the UK and US, Google is restricted in some of its more questionable activities by the copyright conventions that regulate the exploitation of intellectual property in both those territories. But New Zealand, for historical reasons, is outside those conventions. Google, meanwhile, has been digitising the contents of New Zealand's great libraries.

In the past few days, New Zealand's literary community has woken up to the implications of this situation. A very good blog, Beattiesbookblog, has begun to champion the story. It's only a straw in the wind, but it says a lot about the shadowy side of the Google initiative, and should give those who care about copyright (that's to say, any writer or journalist) pause for thought.


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