Here and elsewhere, I've commented on the Google Books project, which caused some controversy and hurt feelings among the writing and publishing crowd way back in the digital yonder, all of two years or so ago. In the interest of freedom, or posterity, or something (because it couldn't have been profit) the search engine giant Google made some quick deals with some libraries, invented a page turning scanning device and proceeded to digitize every book they could get their all-consuming hands on. The discussion about copyright and permissions -- who owns what and who gets to do what with it -- seemed to come after the scanning began, and after Google Books was already established as an online feature. If you haven't seen it yet (is that possible?) go look now and discover literal tonnes of literature, free for the browsing and online reading, courtesy your benevolent friends at Google.
Why were writers and publishers upset about this amazing feature? Lots of good reasons, most of which have been retroactively worked out with lawyers talking to lawyers. It's my understanding that books still protected by copyright cannot be fully accessed through Google unless the copyright owner has given permission, though Google still scans protected books and maintains a digital file that is searchable within limits. This is a working concession to those who really should be viewed as Google's partners in their global library project. Of course, real partners are generally consulted before their stuff is grabbed and used -- which is the issue at the heart of the Google Books controversy.
Why didn't Google talk to writers and publishers before they started scanning? Why weren't these necessary partners brought into the project before lawyers started e-mailing lawyers? If the goal really is a free global library for the benefit of all, shouldn't the writers and publishers of the collection be involved? And it's probably important to remind ourselves that Google is a for-profit company, one of the most profitable for-profits out there. They can certainly afford to sit down and talk things out ahead of time, maybe even work out a deal for permissions.
On the other hand, it's a brave new digital world, and those seeking to be consulted when their stuff is used commercially can expect to be made fun of. Buggy whip manufacturers, blah, blah, blah.
Recently, I Google Mapped a friend's address in preparation for a trip. This friend lives in the United States, so instead of just the usual map and satellite imagery, I was also treated to Google Street View, a 360 degree(ish) photographic view of my friend's house and neighbourhood. I could see the post-office truck parked outside the house; I could see a neighbour walking by on the street. I could zoom in, check out car makes and models. I e-mailed my friend to let her know, and her first response was -- "My garden looks so much better now. I hate this thing. Creepy."
After a quick bit of googling, I discovered that lots of people are uncomfortable with the idea that Google has sent little cars with cameras on top of them to prowl their streets and take detailed shots of their private places. Strange that. Hey why is that car in my driveway in the middle of the day?
Does anyone remember getting a nice letter from Google saying they'd be sending their spy-car around the neighbourhood? I mean, I know this is the kind of universe-saving technology humanity has been waiting for forever (and we should all thank the great Google for their free gift of Street View), but shouldn't there at least be a conversation before the camera cars go out?