Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book ’em, Google

Book (and other) publishers understandably have risen up angry against Google’s fast and loose appropriation of their copyrighted material, but they ought to capitalize on this nifty new business opportunity instead of battling the inevitable.

Faced with an outcry from publishers opposed to Google scanning their copyrighted books into a searchable online database destined immodestly to contain every title in the world, Google last week suspended until at least November the digitization of copyrighted material from publishers who have not given explicit permission for their volumes to be added to the database.

Invoking the “fair use" doctrine of copyright law, Google had taken the position that it can lawfully excerpt words and pictures from copyrighted material in the way a reviewer can quote a passage from a book or a magazine can publish a still photo from a movie. The company’s aggressive use of fair use is at the heart of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Agence France Presse, which objected to the appearance of its copyrighted material in Google News.

As discussed previously here, “fair use” is a murky concept that only lawyers can love. It’s easy to claim fair use when you are lifting something from someone else’s protected work, but it may be costly to defend yourself if someone decides to haul you into court for violating his copyright. If you are the liftee, which publishers in this case are, you can’t just call a copyright cop. You have to hire a lawyer yourself to sue the alleged offender.

Though some publishers have the appetite to, as it were, throw the book at Google, few have the financial wherewithal to outlast a $77.8 billion company planning to top up its $3 billion bank account with a tidy $4 billion public offering.

Since the publishers aren’t likely to outlast Google in court, they may as well join the company in developing a lucrative new business for themselves. Not only will broad online exposure sell more books in the usual way at Amazon.Com and in stores, but it also will create the opportunity to sell parts of books at premium prices delivering juicy margins.

It’s a wonder that publishers, a generally cerebral set, haven’t figured this out already, but they can make much more money selling a chapter or collection of chapters online than by selling the physical books from which they are extracted.

When a portion of a book is sold online, the publisher can charge a premium price while entirely avoiding the prodigious costs involved in printing and shipping a physical volume. Apart from paying a royalty to the author and a sales commission to an online partner like Google or Amazon, the publisher faces absolutely no additional costs. When chapters are sold online, moreover, there are no embarrassing unsold copies to be remaindered.

Way back at the turn of the century (20th to 21st, that is), several dozen companies, including one headed by me, tried their darndest to convince publishers that they ought to sell their material online to the ever-growing number of people who look to the web first when researching everything from where to buy a car to how electricity works.

The publishers of books, trade journals, academic reviews, high-end market research and lots of other content were intrigued – but they held back for fear that their valuable content might be passed from the legitimate purchaser to a hoard of cyber-freeloaders. Got that covered, we told them. We not only can host and sell your content, but we can wrap it in digital-rights management software to protect it from unauthorized use, so only the rightful users can consume the content in the manner to which they are entitled.

With a few rare exceptions, however, it was no sale. Although publishers spent months, even years, exploring the concept, they never took the plunge, because it’s not how their forefathers did business in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

Today, Google is forcing the issue. But Google also is forcing publishers to do something that will be enormously good for them.

In creating the largest audience in history for books and other valuable copyrighted content, Google will expand immeasurably the market opportunity for publishers of all sizes and stature. It will enable an efficient, high-margin, low-risk sales opportunity for not only publishing houses but also for independent authors who choose to sell their works directly via the growing digital catalogue.

This could be either a good thing or a bad thing for publishers. As the breadth and depth of Google Print expands, it may become increasingly appealing to authors to self-publish their work, where they will do substantially better than the buck or two they now make on every copy sold. (Once a book is typed on a PC and turned into a PDF, it’s easy for Google to index it and the author to email it to the reader who buys it.)

Maybe the possibility of being squeezed out -- rather than the issue of copyright infringement itself -- is what’s really upsetting publishers the most.

They'll need to get over it and get busy. Or, there will be a surprise ending they won't like.