by Ben Lewis
24 October, 2012
The story of the most ambitious project ever conceived on the Internet, and the people who tried to stop it
In 1937 the science fiction writer HG Wells predicted the creation of a “World Brain”, which would contain all the world’s knowledge and be accessible to all of mankind. This all-knowing entity would replace nation states and governments. Prophetically, HG Wells anticipated that the quantity of information, which it would possess, would allow it to monitor every human being on the planet.
Today that World Brain is being brought into existence on the Internet. Wikipedia, Facebook, Baidu in China and the world’s Search Engines are all trying to build their own world brains – but none had a plan as bold, far-reaching and transformative as Google did with its Google Books project.
In 2002, Google began scanning the world’s books. They signed deals with major university libraries – Michigan, Harvard, Stanford in America and the Bodleian library in Britain and Catalonian National Library in Spain. Their goal was not just to create a giant global library, but to use all that knowledge for a higher and more secretive purpose: to help them develop a new form of Artificial Intelligence
Google scanned ten million books, but there was one big problem: over half those books, six million of them, were in copyright. Across the world, authors, launched a campaign against Google. In Autumn 2005, The Authors Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers filed lawsuits. Soon they and Google sat down to try to work out an agreement. Three years later, the result was the Google Book Settlement, all 350 pages of it, unveiled in October 2008
But the $125m Google Book Settlement conferred on Google dramatic new powers. The Google Books Website was to become both the world’s biggest book store and a commercialised library, giving Google a monopoly over the majority of books published in the twentieth century. Harvard library withdrew its support. The German and French governments spoke out against it. The American Department of Justice began an anti-trust investigation.
From Autumn 2009 onwards, Judge Denny Chin held hearings in New York to assess the validity of the Google Book Settlement. In March 2011, he ruled against it.
Since then Google has signed individual deals with many publishers allowing them to show parts of their books on-line with links to websites. Google are also still scanning out-of-copyright books, as well but their masterplan to create an exclusive library whose terms and conditions they could determine has been effectively stopped. Today, the Authors Guild is suing Google for up to $2bn in damages for scanning copyrighted books.
In the end a ragtag army of authors and the occasional librarian defeated one of the world’s most powerful corporations.
In this film the central story of Google Books is woven into the broader fabric of the Internet, with its issues of data-mining and privacy , downloading and copyright, freedom and surveillance.
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