Should Book Publishers Be Embracing, Not Suing, Google?

Book sellers may want to consider calling off the lawyers.

Six years ago, Google announced its intention to start digitizing the books sitting in the libraries of a few major universities and public libraries. Less than a year later, the company was sued by publishers who allege the company was infringing on their copyrights and hurting business. The project continued and expanded and Google's collection now contains millions of books, but if a recent study is right the search giant has only helped those allegedly aggrieved publishers.

Hannibal Travis, a professor at the Florida International University College of Law, estimated the economic impact Google's Book Search had on publishers in a paper published recently in the "Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA." The companies he looked at were the four that together sued (pdf) Google in 2005: McGraw-Hill, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and John Wiley & Sons.

Travis compared the trajectory of their profits from 2001 to 2004, the three years before the project began, to their profits from 2005 to 2008, the three years after it began. He found that the rate of profit growth accelerated after the introduction of Google Books. And that rate was greater than the growth of retail sales or the U.S. economy, according to Travis' paper.

The surprising thing, he writes, is that there was even good reason for sales to decline thanks to an increase in television watching and a deteriorating economy. The poverty rate hit a ten-year high in 2008, real incomes fell, and the price of mortgage payments and rent, gas, college tuition and health care were all spiraling out of control. The bottom line, Travis writes, is that publishers have little to worry about.

These findings suggest that the benefits of digital libraries to American students and persons of limited disposable income, in terms of accessibility of information about and inside books, need not be sacrificed to save publishers from "Napsterization" and the loss of their customers. Moreover, the potential gains in economic efficiency, freedom of expression, and global democratization represented by digital libraries like GBS are more likely to outweigh any damage done by GBS to publishers, than had the findings of this study been otherwise.

[Via Techdirt.]

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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