Monday, October 09, 2006

At the International Publishers Association 2006 update

In amongst the hustle and bustle of another Frankfurt Book Fair, I managed to slip away to the relative calm of the International Publishers Association's 2006 Publishing Update. The event, entitled "Publishers and Search Engines: Facing the Challenge", opened with keynote speaker Gavin O'Reilly, President of the World Association of Newspapers. O'Reilly offered us an overview of developing industry standard ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol), which is intended to communicate permissions information to business partners (e.g. search engines) in a machine-readable format -- an extension of the existing robots.txt protocol. Whilst ACAP will likely thrive and perform a useful function, it was quickly forgotten in the ensuing debate.

O'Reilly's presentation strove to consider the opportunities, rather than the challenges, represented by search engines. But this mood of positive engagement was not, by and large, to prevail. Readers of information industry discussion lists will be familiar with most of the issues raised; the rhetoric was one of exploitation ("we're not a charitable entity for search engines to exploit" commented O'Reilly) and litigation (AAP's Allan Adler restated that organisation's position on Google Book Search's library scanning project). Much of the debate revolved around (what I understand to be) misunderstandings of how Google will store scanned book titles, and present them within user search results; Google's Content Partnerships Director Jim Gerber seemed readily able to debunk many of the imputations made against the service (though his Sony analogy1 was reasonably dismissed as specious by one delegate, consultant Michel Vajou). As arguably the only bipartisan panellist, Danny Sullivan's articulate, well-informed analysis was a welcome addition to the discussion.

Publishers are right to have concerns about Google's digitisation but, to me, the persistent invocation of the "fair use" clause is smoke and mirrors (some members of the panel implied as much today). Can publishers' primary concern really be whether users might be able to abuse Google Book Search's "snippets" feature to "tease out" the entire content of a book (what confidence to assume one's content is worth this level of user effort). No, surely publishers' concerns should rest not with what the user might do with the content, but with what Google itself will -- yet no-one directly challenged Jim Gerber on this issue.

I had hoped this forum might allow some nitty-gritty discussion of this issue, given that ACAP should help clarify permitted use of indexed content, and that the debate would move beyond known grievances as a result; instead, we took another turn around the "fair use" merry-go-round and ended up -- as you'd expect -- back where we started.

1 Google Book Search, suggested Gerber, is reinventing fair use, as Sony did when they introduced the Betamax and faced the collective wrath of the motion picture industry.


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