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Artificial Scarcity

February 18, 2008

My wife has to do a presentation on Brahms’ second piano concerto. We were both in the music library yesterday looking up books for her research, and we were using the standard online catalog search. I soon realized that while it could turn up the plethora of books on Brahms in general, it wasn’t so good at finding other books that might mention that particular work but not be about Brahms specifically. I had never used Google’s book search before and I thought this was a perfect time to give it a spin. Google instantly turned up hundreds of books, and although many were musical scores of the piece or otherwise not what I needed, there were many that turned up that the normal catalog search didn’t find. I searched for those titles among the IU stacks, and thus increased the amount of material in which to research from.

But there was one thing that bothered me about the experience. Google has digitized thousands upon thousands of books and this is what makes it’s search so much better than the standard IU search. Even if it is just mentioning the B minor concerto in passing, you can see that sentence out of the entire book within seconds. What you can’t do is read the entire book. I understand that if Google were to offer all of these books for free, the publisher’s lawyers would be rubbing their hands in glee. And I’m not arguing that Google should be giving away all of these books freely either. It’s just that in the case of some of these more obscure academic books, some can be difficult to obtain. IU has a fantastic collection of these books to be sure, but even with this massive collection many are checked out or on reserve. There are a finite amount of these books and access to them can be limited even in a large academic environment. So when I find a useful book on Google books search, and I see that the entire book is already in a digital format (meaning there are an infinite number of copies), but I can’t view that copy and I can’t find a hard copy, I get pissed off. I need to read the information that is contained within a book that is completely available in a digital format. But because the publishers seem to want to follow the arcane way of the music and movie industries, I can’t click a button, pay some money, and have that digital copy for myself instantly. I instead have to hope that the book is still in print to purchase, or track it down in another library and request it via an inter library loan. Last time I checked, this way of doing things was efficient before we invented something called the internet.

This type of thing makes me wonder how the library will survive in this next century. They are in the business of giving people free access to intellectual property. When they buy physical products and loan them out, it is easy to see how the owner gets compensated and the public gets access. But when this property goes digital, how do you find a way to give free access to the public in such a way that the content owners don’t get lawsuit happy? After all, if you have one copy of a book online you can give out unlimited copies of it. Do you restrict access to those in your geographic area? Do you slap tons of copy protection all over it? Do you even bother at all, and do like Google where you can only see a few pages of the entire work? I don’t think I really know where I’m going here as it seems I’ve lost the exact point of my rant. But I suppose I could say this: the world is going digital. Will we lock everything down with copy protection and artificial scarcity, will we unlock everything so that things are freely available to all, or we will find a happy middle ground that satisfies both parties? It just seems such a shame to have the potential to have access to so much knowledge but not be able to reach it because a few people (who control 99% of the content) don’t know how to change their outdated business model.