Google & The World Brain

During February 2013, the BBC aired a documentary about an event involving Google and copyright infringement, called Google and the World Brain. The event, which led to a court case in 2011, was precipitated by the scanning of printed books by Google employees and affiliates. The number of books that were scanned included just about every major title, and included works in English, French, German, Chinese and a multitude of other languages.

The film explores what it describes as the most ambitious project ever conceived on the Internet, and possibly the largest information hoarding exercise in world history. It also tells the fascinating story of the people who tried to prevent it from happening.

The term “World Brain” was coined between 1936 to 1938 by the pioneering science fiction writer H G Wells. Wells published various World Brain essays, describing an enormous, ever expanding and permanent world encyclopaedia, containing all human knowledge, accessible to all human kind.

Seventy years after the publication of Wells’s World Brain essays, that very same vision started to gain traction, as the internet giant Google engaged in the scanning of millions of books, for the purpose of making them available for public view on its Google Books website.

Google and The World Brain

Documentary: Google and The World Brain. Picture credits: Director Ben Lewis.

However, the problem was that the amount of content of the books made available to view, wasn’t limited to a small number of sample pages, a feature used by the giant online book store Amazon, but the entire book was made available to view. This became apparent when visitors to Google Books were able to view substantive content, simply by entering a search for a common word or phrase. The trouble with this was that well over half of the scanned books were still in copyright.

When authors based all over the world realised this, various guilds including the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, launched a campaign to try to stop Google, resulting in legal action being taken. During October 2008, Google announced an agreement to pay $125 million to settle the matter. This agreement also included licensing provisions, allowing Google to sell personal and institutional subscriptions to its database of books. However, after the Department of Justice filed a brief suggesting that the initial agreement may violate US anti-trust laws, the parties filed an amended settlement agreement during November 2009.

The film concluded the story in a New York courtroom in 2011, where supervising judge Denny Chin issued a ruling rejecting the settlement. Interviews in the film suggested that the possibility of international treaty violations were an influencing factor of the judge’s decision.