Law in Contemporary Society
(those of you interested in digital books may also be interested in JamieGottliebThirdPaper.)

Selling Google Books

The Google Books Settlement grants Google the right to distribute copyrighted, out-of-print works online in return for giving the rightsholder part of the profits. This essay will assess the potential impact of consumers' preference for hard-copy books and the availability of free digital books online on Google's prospects for commercial success.

  • This doesn't make sense. Google's commercial success with Books has nothing to do with whether people prefer to read books on paper. Google's only successful business is turning search into money. That's all they mean to do here. Hard copy books aren't searchable. End of story.

Digital books as a complement to books

Book Browsing

Speculation abounds as to whether eReaders will replace books,

  • Predictions are useless without timescales. What speculation are you talking about, and over what period of time is the speculator talking. If the timescale is ten years, who knows and who cares. If the time scale is seventy-five years, yes, certainly, for all but historical, archival, and decorative purposes.

but one study finds that book sales increase after pirated versions become available online (1:17), suggesting the possibility of a more complementary relationship. For these books, digital books provide a service to the reader without actually replacing the hard copy. Digital books provide immediate access to a broad range of ideas, whereas books are well suited to sustained engagement with a single work.

  • This makes an assumption that there's a difference between digital books and books. You haven't shown why that's true in the long run. In fact, it isn't true. A book is a display device for analog text. A similar display device for digital text would be a digital book. What you presently see around you are the equivalent of digital incunabula.

A similar dynamic is emerging in the music industry, where vinyl sales doubled last year even as music sales continued to drop. The trend suggests that listeners value different media for different ways of listening. In this specialized market, CDs have ceased to perform any particular function well enough to stay viable in this newly-specialized industry, but digital music and vinyl each have distinct roles to play: convenience and quality. The more obvious differences between books and digital books could give rise to an even more complimentary relationship.

  • Nonsense. Dephysicalized music is the only relevant music to people under 12, which should tell what the actual long run outcome is. Physical analog music is a nostalgic phenomenon, like analog tube-amplified audio. The claim that analog distribution on vinyl is superior in quality is just absurd. Even the audiophile preference for analog amplification is ridiculous except on a primarily psychic comfort basis. I can build a digital amplifier using a Tripath chip in a Chinese factory and sell it for, say, $60 that will fit in a letter-size envelope and outperform a water-boiling $2000 analog high-end amplifier on all the audiophile reviews.

  • You're not talking about the actual future of cultural distribution, you're talking about "trends."


Digital books will become the medium of choice for academic study because there is no need to overcome readers' emotional attachments to the hard copy. “Studying” evokes images of a night hunched over a laptop rather than the cozy fireplace and hardcover that “reading” brings to mind. And full text word search functionality significantly increases the efficiency of studying. As my little sister recently told me while studying for her AP English exam with an online copy of the Great Gatsby, “it's easier online.”

  • I thought academics were book lovers who read in bed. This isn't analysis, this is just, as the Russians say, spitting in your moustache.

How to sell free books

Google might be able to carve out a niche for itself if its only competition were hard-copy books, but unlicensed digital books pose a different set of challenges. Grassroots scanning and on-demand publishing are making digital books increasingly common. Publishers' are beginning to feel threatened, and Google Books appears to be selling access to a good that is already freely available. To succeed, they might consider an industry that has mastered the trick: bottled water.

  • Google is not selling e-books. Have you noticed?


Bottled water's chief advantage over tap is convenience. The music industry has recently demonstrated that convenience can trump price to some extent in the sale of digital media as well. In Japan, the music industry grew last year, largely on the strength of mobile music sales. In the first half of the decade, however, when the Japanese mobile internet connection fees made downloading directly to the phone impractical, music piracy was driven primarily by ripping albums from CD rental stores (14). The switch from cheap piracy to legitimate purchase can be explained by convenience; ripping rented CDs is more complicated than downloading to phone. The increasing willingness to purchase music by phone suggests that Japanese listeners are willing to pay for music when it is made conveniently available for purchase.

  • Once again, the time scale on which you seem (unstatedly) to be working is years rather than decades, which makes it impossible to get past the various business model contentions of failing firms, to deal with the actual endpoints in the struggle to free cultural distribution. The trade in out-of-print text is not like the music business, for a couple of obvious reasons, which you don't identify for the reader, thus making your argument seem more relevant than it is.

Similarly, American online music sales are rising. iTunes replaced Walmart as America's top-selling music store last year. It is simply easier for many people to sit at their computer and download a song than borrow music from a friend.

  • It's also just as easy to get the music for free not from iTunes or some other proprietary dealer. Record industry numbers have no reliability to them at all. At present, there's a good deal of bullshit about how their streaming options are working for them. But even if you are paying Rupert Murdoch $5/mo for unlimited streaming, and ripping everything that comes over the stream at you, that's not a music industry business model, that's Murdoch stealing from the wreckage.

The sustainability of the music industry's current model remains doubtful, but it has demonstrated that listeners will pay for convenience. If Google is going to make any money selling access to digital books, then, it will have to be more convenient than the competition.

  • Please pay attention: Google isn't selling access to digital books. Google is doing what it always does, monetizing search. You can't write usefully about this matter if you don't convey the basic facts about what's going on.


Like bottled water, Google can succeed by casting its inherently wasteful business as a conspicuous display of the user's wealth.

  • No. That's wrong. Google doesn't do merchandising.

Google's prospects

Individual purchase

Unlicensed digital books will increasingly replace Google's sales of individual purchases as new titles become available for free. Unlicensed digital books are free and equally convenient to access. Google Books will probably serve as a backup for users who cannot find the book they are looking for online.

Google similarly will be unable to market its service as a luxury good for individual purchase. For readers searching for books online, the digital book is a means, not an end, and they are therefore unlikely to spend money on it. Conspicuous consumption only works as such when one's peers can see it, and accessing a website on one's own computer probably will not have much of an effect.

Institutional Subscriptions

Schools and perhaps companies will probably pay for Google's institutional subscription service. As a practical matter, universities cannot flout existing copyright law by relying on unlicensed digital books in their official capacity. It is one thing for a student sitting in their dorm room to download a book, but quite another for a University to replace course packets with Google Books. Such institutions will therefore be willing to pay to access these texts without incurring liability.

Even beyond practical considerations, though, an institutional subscription to Google Books Service would be exactly the kind of conspicuous display of wealth that an institution such as an elite or private university would pay for. Whereas individual users do not have the opportunity to show off their Google Books subscription, a Google Books subscription effectively conveys the University's elite status to its current, former, and prospective students. Small advantages in functionality and presentation will amplify this effect.


Several factors remain to be considered. To name a few:

    • Whether unlicensed scanning will impact Google's out-of-print, relatively obscure product as much as it does current bestsellers.
      Whether privacy concerns incentivize readers use unlicensed digital books instead of Google.
      Whether readers hold the law in higher regard than the college students who led the digital music revolution.
  • One thing is clear, however: advising copyright owners on their legal relationship with Google in light of the settlement requires attention to developments in our society's relationship with books, beyond the nuances of copyright law.

    -- MichaelDreibelbis - 22 May 2009

    • It's a start. But there are two things you need to correct in order to make progress. You need to understand Google Books. And you need to stop confusing the music industry with the trade in hitherto-unrippable and now completely unprotected analog text. Your proper second illustration isn't the music business, but the textbook meltdown now beginning.

    • So the first big decision in revision is whether to drop Google Books altogether, and write about the competition between Gutenberg and the Book Ripper, on the one hand, and Amazon on the other, with Sony/Bertelsman and the open-format-with-closed-DRM "third-way" e-book merchants in the hopelessly muddled middle. Or you can finally take a real look at Google Books, drop the nonsense about bottled-water merchandising, and explain it as a further trivial extension of the search monetization activity, explain how Microsoft's competing Million Books Project (about which you don't seem to know now) failed, what it left behind, how the Internet Archive relates to the Google Books outcome, and so on. This would require dropping the irrelevant and short-term issue of "prefers hard copy," which has nothing to do with search, which is all Google cares about.

    • I'm also planning to discuss these matters in "Law in the Internet Society" this fall, for which you are not presently registered, so perhaps you want to drop in on the relevant Thursday afternoon.


    Webs Webs

    r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:05 - IanSullivan
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