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Yahoo! follows Google into print minefield

No explosions, yet

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Unlike Google, Yahoo! has set off into the book scanning minefield without detonating any explosions. But that might be because it hasn't, as yet, gone near a mine. Yahoo!'s own book scanning plans went public today with the announcement of the Open Content Alliance, of which it is a founding member.

The OCA includes Adobe and HP, which will provide hardware and software licenses; and the University of California, and University of Toronto are lending their collections to be digitized. The material will be available as collections to other institutions, rather than being locked up on Yahoo's servers.

The catch? Well, Yahoo! appears to be tip-toeing round the copyright controversy for now, opting to digitize works already in the public domain: on works to which copyright was never attached, or has expired. This possibly makes the OCA no more useful than the public domain collections we already have on the internet.

Although the more collegiate approach contrasts sharply with Google's deal-with-it-or-else tactics - - the end result may be the same.

Lock-up garage

Google argues, and authors know, that being placed in the shop window that is Google can be a fillip to the copyright holder, bringing new attention to a languishing or forgotten work. Google explains that its Print service "helps you discover books, not read them online". So why are librarians and authors upset?

Principally because the web giant struck deals with a few selected libraries and then embarked on the wholesale reproduction of copyright material without asking the authors. (The deals also contained a Non Disclosure Agreement preventing the libraries from revealing their terms. More here: the commercial exploitation rights belong exclusively to Google). Librarians, who want everyone to access the material, were concerned that digitization would "lock up" the data with a private corporation. Authors were even more aggrieved, and filed suit. By inviting authors to opt-out if they wanted, Google bludgeoned its way through their rights.

What both parties really mean is that Google has got stuff, if not for free, then at a bargain price. Libraries had to pay for licenses or physical material: Google only pays for the scanning - which is an extremely good deal for Google.

As Seth Finkelstein reminds us:

"Consider that this is not Google contributing to culture. It's Google trying to supplant the publishers as the middleman business between authors and readers," he wrote.

So what at first looks like a copyright issue on closer examination is really a compensation issue. Just as we've seen with music. There is no copyright crisis.

Librarians already make material available through computer networks, and so see computer networks as a good thing. Authors and publishers have no objection to their works being available digitally - to a wider audience - so long as it doesn't mean the wholesale destruction of value.

There are few problems of this nature that can't be solved by the happy sound of coins rolling across a table. So at some stage the new would-be gatekeepers such as Google and Yahoo! will do the decent thing and pay for licenses to use the content, along with a coherent compensation model for the material. A digital license for all of us to use this material, would of course be better value - and avoid the risk of a Google tomorrow slipping into the role of a Time Warner today.

Both gatekeepers like to claim they're doing their bit for global harmony - but both are for-profit private corporations. You should be careful what you wish for. It might come true. ®

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