Open Access & Society


 Open & Society. Is Google helping?  

The almost recent US Supreme court decision to grant Google books permission to continue to copy and digitize and make available excerpts of over 20 million books must encourage a debate on the nature of intellectual or artistic property from all sides of the open access community. The Authors Guild who challenged Google have said “this case represents an unprecedented judicial expansion of the fair-use doctrine that threatens copyright protection in the digital age.” Their president Roxanna Robinson sees the decision as “a redistribution of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector,”across all areas of the arts. Time to reappraise perhaps. It does highlight a control issue, and as the most powerful or most wealthy usually hold the levers of power, it must pose many questions for the future of Open Access and with whom it allies itself.

This is not original as we know Open from programmer ‘internet hacktivist’ Aaron Swartz was a laudable and non-commercial in ethos, version of same. To paraphrase Aaron Swartz….. books are the world’s cultural legacy, to allow it be controlled by a corporation is ‘scary.’ When a tech companies coopt the open movement are they in earnest or is it the privatization of knowledge? Is an author’s desire for control over their work worth less than the overall good of society?  Curiously enough Aaron Swartz was jailed for copyright infringement for downloading some of the jstor catalogue, yet Google has been allowed circumvent copyright issues using the ‘fair use’ principle. Where Aaron Swartz’s pockets not deep enough for justice to be done? And now have the floodgates been thrown open?

Do not get me wrong I am a big fan of OA. Open access in education and research is patently the way to go for the transformation of human endeavour and knowledge in the digital age. The idea of books in chains, as was the case in medieval monasteries seems preposterous to us now, but in reality has continued in essence right up until the present day.  Vested interest groups such as academia, governments, institutions and the professions consistently try to stymie OA with legal technical and financial constraints. OA promotes the idea of all knowledge available anywhere anytime. But is open source also equal free to access? Not really when companies like Google appear in the mantle of OA, ostensibly acting more like an NGO than a multi-million dollar corporation with shareholders to answer to, and proclaiming their noble commitment to open in all its forms.

Google on open: “Closed systems are well-defined and profitable, but only for those who control them. Open systems are chaotic and profitable, but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else”. I wonder if this applies to Google books whereby they moved very fast indeed and scanned and uploaded millions of books without the consent of authors. They also blatantly contravened most established copyright laws worldwide. Of course, the authors and publishers fought back in court only to lose under the fair use doctrine. But is it fair use to allow a corporation make money from a writer’s work without permission and allow a behemoth like Google potentially control the worlds access to knowledge.

Google have been accused of trying to create an Artificial Intelligence, unlike anything the world has seen. After a recent viewing of the Ben Lewis BBC, documentary Google and the World Brain, I was taken by the almost complicit nature of society in general, not to question the motives of tech companies when they develop a project such as Google Books. The most worrying thing is that they have got away with it and are now the world’s largest library. But they are being closely chased by a Chinese tech giant Baidu among others. This is not how I imagined a pan-global initiative opening up world knowledge to the masses. I saw it in a more publically moderated global and local network available at no cost to the user.

But everyone must decide for themselves and the film Google and the World Brain (see H.G. Wells World Brain)  is should cause debate, it is available online. My own concerns could be encapsulated in an interesting review from Huffington post which caught my eye. It identifies the point when a Monks idealism is confronted with a new disturbing reality, which leaves him speechless. If H.G. Wells’ idea of a world brain comes to fruition who will control it, the elites or the public?