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Google Books

Take an inside peek inside one of Google's most controversial projects

Who knew books could cause such a fuss?

IT’S EASY TO WRITE off books as yesterday’s medium. They’re not searchable, they take up space, it’s ‘dead tree media’.

But books are such a boon to civilisation that Google kicked off “Project Ocean” in 2004. It came to be known as Google Books, an effort to digitalise and catalogue every book and make them freely available online.

It’s a polarising idea. Researchers and academics love the promise of instant access to any printed material they could ever want, but copyright holders and the Authors Guild were far from pleased. Not only were they not being compensated for their work, but Google launched the project without so much as seeking permission from them.

One of Google’s core missions is to organise the world’s information, and with books being the valuable storehouses of data that they have been for millennia, it is only obvious that the company would seek to establish a universal library of the world’s knowledge.

A documentary titled ‘Google and the World Brain‘ takes a detailed look at this ambitious undertaking, interviewing people who love and loathe it alike. For all the simplicity of ink and paper, the movie shows us that the complicated rabbit hole of intellectual property law runs far deeper than you’d think.
Here’s the story of Google Books…

The beginning

Books have carried the world’s knowledge for millennia.


Famed sci-fi author HG Wells one hypothesized “a new, free, synthetic, authoritative, permanent ‘World Encyclopedia’ that could help world citizens make the bes use of universal information.”


He wrote a book about the idea called ‘The World Brain’ in which he said something like this would, at least in part, require gethering as many “old fashioned” bookes as possible to squeeze out all the information contained in them.

But there are a lot of books out there and such an undertaking would require a lot of time and money.


imageImage: Google’s Sergey Brin.

Enter Google, a company with the resouces and commitment to information organisation to make such things come to light.

At a cost estimated between $30 and $100 per book, the company began digitising books by coordinating with libraries around the world to borrow as many books as possible, copyrighted and uncopyrighted alike.

Robert Darnton of the Harvard University Library was happy to let the company digitize the library’s public domain books. Other libraries offered up copyrighted books as well. Google even scanned old texts from a monastery in Spain.


Similar efforts have been made in the past. Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg is the world’s oldest digital library, archiving public domain writings since 1971.

Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive not only aims to catalogue all books, but all web content as well.

IBM’s Watson supercomputer famously beat its human opponents in an exhibition match of Jeopardy due to its ability to process natural language and access huge stores of data taken from the Internet and libraries alike.


Above is a still frame from the only known video footage (six seconds long) of an actual Google book scanning setup. Famed futurist and current Google employee Ray Kurzweil is acknowledged as the inventor of OCR, or optical character recognition, which is the technology that enables a computer to convert a scanned document into digital text.

Advanced book scanning setups use professional cameras and lighting to capture incredibly high quality images before running them through OCR software and uploading them to the Internet.

Proponents of Google Books love it for many reasons, not only for the instant access to any book, but for the fact that books can essentially become immortal when scanned and stored digitally. No more lost books due to floods or fires.



But the opponents of the project want to be fairly compensated for their work. The Authors Guild sprang for legal action.

Kevin Kelly of Wired sees it as perfectly legal and useful. He said that all ideas are built on top of other ideas, so no one can “own” an idea.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney, former director of the National Library of France, found the idea appalling. He wants to protect culture and artists’ rights.


There was, of course, a court case to address the matter. It was resolved last month when Judge Denny Chin ruled that digitizing books was transformative enough that it was fair use.

We suspect paper books aren’t going anywhere anytime, and with Google’s book scanning operation moving forward with the law’s blessing, e-books are here to stay.

Watch the trailer for the movie:

(Video: polarstarfilms/YouTube)

- Declan Love, all images screenshots from Google and the World Brain.

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