Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

The state of reading books in America in 2016

Pew Research has recently put out several reports on book reading in America. First, the broad overview:

Yet even as the number of ways people spend their time has expanded, a Pew Research Center survey finds that the share of Americans who have read a book in the last 12 months (73%) has remained largely unchanged since 2012…

Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.

Second, those who do read still do so in print most of the time:

Readers today can access books in several common digital formats, but print books remain substantially more popular than either e-books or audio books. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) have read a print book in the last year, which is identical to the share of Americans who reported doing so in 2012 (although down slightly from the 71% who reported reading a print book in 2011).

By contrast, 28% of Americans have read an e-book – and 14% have listened to an audio book – in the last year. In addition to being less popular than print books overall, the share of Americans who read e-books or listen to audio books has remained fairly stable in recent years…

Nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively; just 6% are digital-only book readers.

Third, on why people read:

Among all American adults:

  • 84% ever read to research specific topics of interest (29% do so nearly every day).
  • 82% read to keep up with current events (47% nearly every day).
  • 80% read for pleasure (35% nearly every day).
  • 57% read for work or school (31% do so nearly every day).

Fourth, who isn’t reading:

Several demographic traits correlate with non-book reading, Pew Research Center surveys have found. For instance, adults with a high school degree or less are about three times as likely as college graduates (40% vs. 13%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that these less-educated adults are also the least likely to own smartphones or tablets, two devices that have seen a substantial increase in usage for reading e-books since 2011. (College-educated adults are more likely to own these devices and use them to read e-books.)

Adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are about twice as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (33% vs. 17%). Hispanic adults are also about twice as likely as whites (40% vs. 23%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.

Older Americans are a bit more likely than their younger counterparts not to have read a book. Some 29% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 23% of adults under 50. In addition, men are less likely than women to have read a book, as are adults in rural areas compared with those in urban areas.

Fifth, the book reading trends haven’t changed too much in recent years:

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months is largely unchanged since 2012, but is slightly higher than in 2011, when the Center first began conducting surveys of book-reading habits. That year, 19% of adults reported not reading any books.

While Internet use (with the included possibilities of streaming audio and video) is taking up more and more time in daily life, it may take quite a while for reading books to becoming an activity for a small minority. And how could is disappear completely from certain settings such as schools and colleges?

Books that influenced sociologists to pursue sociology

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle discusses some of the books that most influenced her:

BOOKS: Which books had the biggest effect on you?

TURKLE: Jean Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of the World,” Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind.” Getting into those books got me into this notion that we love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love. That became my life’s work.

BOOKS: Any other pivotal book?

TURKLE: I think the most influential book for me was “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman. I read that in high school. I said to myself I want to be the sort of person who could write a book like that. So I decided to study sociology and psychology. In fact, he became my mentor.

Given that Turkle was trained as a sociologist and psychologist (she did both together: “Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.”), these books don’t look so surprising. But, would we have known this when Turkle was in college or younger? Or were these the books that she found at an academic level that then influenced her later research and writing? It would be interesting to see: (1) what books a number of other sociologists would cite as influential and (2) whether these texts line up with the books and articles cited the most in the discipline.

Additionally, The Lonely Crowd has had an outsized effect on studying the American suburbs. I admit that I have not read the whole thing though it sits on the shelf in my office. Its claims about conformity have been widely echoed by critics of the suburbs – while cities are often presented as the bastions of individuality and authenticity – even as the data behind the claims was somewhat thin.

My public library is also a free video store

I recently saw my public library’s latest annual report with these figures on items borrowed:

WarrenvilleLibraryBorrowing2015

While books are still the largest category, it isn’t much of a drop to the next category of DVDs. One interpretation of this data? The DVDs are nearly as important to the library’s patrons as DVDs. This makes the library one of the best video stores around with free prices and a decent selection.

Here is the stated mission of the library:

It is the mission of the Warrenville Public Library District to collect, organize and make available the representative records of humanity’s actions, concerns and aspirations. It exists for the common good to support a literate and informed citizenry.

I know this trend has been underway for a while now as the DVDs might help keep people coming to the library and we certainly live in a visual culture. But, it would be interesting to think about how all those DVDs contribute to supporting a “literate and informed citizenry.” Of course, some could argue not all or even many books meet this guideline.

The difficulties in creating viral audio clips

Why listen to audio on the Internet when you can read an article or watch a video? This is the problem in creating a viral audio clip:

In a provocative piece for Digg on viral sound, reporter  Stan Alcorn asked Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian: “Why does the Internet so rarely mobilize around audio? What would it take to put audio on the Reddit front page?”

Since audio is, of course, our business, we asked Stan Alcorn to make us an audio version (listen above). We want our work to be sharable – and so we’ve decided to be proactive…

As Stan reports, there are certainly exceptions to the rule. For instance, the audio I share usually falls into a few different categories: Isolated David Bowie vocals, super-awkward studio outtakes with Art Garfunkel, and angry phone messages to reporters about drones. (As a journalist, I think the last one is my favorite. “DON’T YOU SUPERVISE THE SUB EDITORS WHO WRITE THESE HEADLINES!?”)

There’s also plenty of stuff that Marketplace has done that I would hope could go viral.

The key here is that audio just seems to take more time to get to the point. With an article or video, you can leave it quickly and plenty of watchers do: they check out the first few seconds, see if it catches their attention, and then either engage further or move on. Audio is more of a mystery. What might happen next? This is something that people who love radio talk about all the time, all of the “theater of the mind” stuff. I’m trying to imagine what might have happened if the Internet had been invented during the golden age of radio, roughly the 1930s and 1940s, and if the Internet could have been an audio medium rather than a primarily visual medium.

It will be interesting to see if any of the Marketplace audio clips submitted at the end of this story could go viral…

A society that develops deep readers

Sociologist Wendy Griswold has written about what it means to develop a reading culture and recent research about “deep reading” suggests people have to learn to have to do it:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy…

To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes—and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them…

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

If we put this in sociological terms, it sounds like the research suggests that deep reading is a socialized experience. Deep reading is a developed skill, perhaps explicitly modeled and taught and also observed and absorbed. For those who see the benefits of deep reading, the next logical question seems to be how to continue this socialization process. When Griswold studied reading culture in Nigeria, she discussed the role of printing presses and publishing companies, educated authors, citizens have the money to buy books, and citizens having the time to read novels and longer works. There are not the same kinds of issues in the United States: there are plenty books, authors, and potential readers with the time and money for deep reading. Instead, the issues are things like a lot of competition for reading and a value system that privileges progress, novelty, anti-intellectualism, and pragmatism.

What happens then if a society is post deep reading, having advanced past that stage according to the practices of many residents? Does this affect civic and social life in meaningful ways? Or, if a society is divided along reading and non-reading lines? There has been plenty of discussion about inequality regarding the Internet but what about with books and reading?

Barnes & Noble as “the last bookstore chain standing”

Here is a look at the dwindling fortunes of Barnes & Noble:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, said that, over the next decade, the chain will reduce its outlets by about twenty a year to reach a figure of about 450-to-500 consumer stores, down from a peak of 726 in 2008. A separate chain of 674 college bookstores (which thrive on tchotchkes and their exclusive franchises) is not part of that calculation. Even with so many fewer consumer stores, Klipper said, “It’s a good business model. You have to adjust your overhead and get smart with smart systems. Is it what it used to be when you were opening 80 stores a year and dropping stores everywhere? Probably not. It’s different. But every business evolves.” Klipper disputes the notion that bookstores will be unable to hold their own in the digital era, despite the chain’s need to downsize where rents or locations are hurting the prospect of acceptable profitability. Only a handful of the stores–fewer than twenty–are actually losing money, he told the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg. But the company’s revenues have been significantly impacted by its commitment to build the Nook franchise.

While holding on to ownership of nearly 80 percent of its Nook division, a $300 million investment in Nook from Microsoft last fall, followed by an $89.5 million commitment from Pearson, which sees value in the growing electronic textbook market, are signs that Barnes & Noble can forge a way to secure enough of the digital business to offset the problems it faces in traditional bookselling.

But the overall impression of Barnes & Noble’s situation in the book industry is not nearly as positive as its owners and investors would like to portray. Publisher’s Weekly reported last week that Barnes & Noble is in the midst of contentious negotiations over terms with Simon & Schuster. “Although the exact nature of the disagreement is not yet clear,” Publisher’s Weekly reported, “Barnes &Noble has significantly reduced its orders from S&S. The main reason for the cutback seems to be, according to sources, Barnes & Noble’s lack of support from S&S.” (One way or another, this means a dispute over the size of discounts and advertising.) Another factor for concern is the impending merger of Random House and Penguin, which is expected to give this corporate behemoth the ability to deal with Google’s Android ecosystem, and Apple’s consumer cachet as well as Amazon’s dominant position in online retailing. There was an initial belief that Borders’ bankruptcy would bring a substantial portion of its in-store business to Barnes & Noble, but that has not turned out to be the case.

“Barnes & Noble is the last bookstore chain standing,” Wharton management professor Steve Kobrin, who is also the publisher of Wharton Digital Press, told the Knowledge@Wharton newsletter. “There’s still a niche there, but it may go to small independent bookstores.”

As I’ve watched these stories over the last few years, here are a few thoughts:

1. There still is a lot of irony in people lamenting the loss of Barnes & Noble today when not too long ago they were lamenting the rise of big box bookstores in general.

2. We could have a larger conversation about reading in society in general. Is this just about Amazon and online retailers taking away business or are less Americans reading in general? (Book sales were down 2.5% in 2011.) This extends to libraries as well: do people go there for books or DVDs?

3. There is room for interesting conversations about the goals bookstores meet in society or the function they play. Are they supposed to be more like “third places,” commercial learning centers where the average citizen can encounter a world of knowledge (commercial versions of a library), or retailers looking to make money? If bookstores are lost, what is really lost? If people aren’t going to bookstores, what are they doing instead?