Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who is the Little Guy Now?

Back in 1994 I remember reading in the Boston Globe, an interview with Mitt Romney's wife. This was during his Senate run against incumbent Ted Kennedy. It was also a time when I, and many like me, couldn't find work. The term "under employment" was thrown around a lot, and while we know now that the tech sector was the verge of a major upswing, at that point in time a lot seemed bleak.

So Ann Romney starts talking about her early life with Mitt and how they "struggled" because he had to sell off some of his stock, and that the carpeting in their apartment didn't match. A later debate between the two secured in my head the following thought: how can this candidate be so out of touch that he makes a Kennedy look like the "everyman"?

I had that same feeling today when I read that Microsoft plans to start an online library project similar to Google's, but it's going to do so by working with the Open Content Alliance. This is the same day that Google CEO Eric Schmidt dismissed the lawsuits from authors and publishers over Google Print as "routine."

So Microsoft, the company feared for its predatory practices that seemingly put Netscape out of business, is suddenly on the side of the "little guy"? Talk about a PR nightmare!

The issue here comes down to trust. As I've said before, Google's basic idea is "trust us, we promise to do no evil." But evil depends on perspective, and it seems that Google's forgotten that.

In July, Patricia Seybold, CEO of the analyst firm bearing her name, wrote a report called "In Google We Trust?" in which she cautioned companies about jumping into bed with the search giant. "Never before, in the seven years that we've been holding our semi-annual visionaries' meetings, has a single technology suppler been the focal point for so much of the group's discussion," she wrote. That struck me as pretty amazing, considering the role that Microsoft plays in so many organizations.

In the report she encourages companies to have some kind of Google strategy, whether that is working with the company directly or just recognizing the role that Google searches play in driving business.

One group that does work directly with Google is Penn State Press, the publishing arm of Penn State University. In fact, Tony Sanfilippo, director of sales and marketing, is a key case study for the Google Print program, singing its praises as helping drive a print-on-demand program the publisher uses to reduce inventory and boost sales.

But that doesn't mean Sanfilippo is completely happy with Google. He's criticized them openly, including an open letter to the company printed in the September 26 issue of Publisher's Weekly, in which he called for many of the same things I called for in my previous post (I hadn't read his letter until after I wrote the post). Here's a brief excerpt:

If Google is already planning to scan our books and add them to their search results, why couldn't they offer our press a high-resolution copy, in addition to the file they are already offering the university library from which they obtained it? With books that are out of print, that would allow publishers to offer the title through print-on-demand, and Google to rank it among its search results, with those glorious "buy the book" links.
In an email to me the other day, Sanfilippo acknowledged that he has not heard an official response from Google, this even as he's a customer reference for the company. Being a tech PR guy, I know how hard it is to get customer references, and they all must be treated very well. At the very least Google owes him a response.

Sanfilippo points out that from his perspective, in the non-profit university press sector, Google can very easily hurt the business. "The libraries included in the project are among our best customers. University libraries buy most, if not all of what university presses publish. These libraries have all bought or subscribed to our digital content in the past. Now they won't need to anymore. We're talking about tens of thousands in lost revenues," he told me.

Then there is the fact that digital files don't exist for much of the backlist, including out of print books that are still under copyright.

But here's where things get interesting, and I'm not sure of Google's intentions. Once Google has the digital file, can it eventually get copyright? Or does it just plan to be in business long past the point at which the book moves into the public domain?

All that said, Sanfilippo points out that he still loves Google Print for publishers, as that is an opt-in program with strict limitations, not an opt-out program over which they have no control over their copyrighted material.

There are many publishing houses that make a lot of money printing books in the public domain, which means they are more in the "packaging" business. So what happens when people don't need to buy the packaged book but can still get the content? Or maybe Google can print it for them, as I've suggested before?

"I think Google may be shooting itself in the foot," Sanfilippo continued in his email. "By ignoring the concerns of publishers, Google may in the long term betray the trust they need, if they really are considering content distribution. Either way, they most definitely seem to be publishing, the only question is will they be doing it legally or illegally."

Yes, there is that "trust" word again. How much will it matter in the future? If people can get the information from Google (as I do daily) will it matter if anyone actually "trusts" the company?

Kevin Werbach actually has an interesting perspective, in which he points out that the lawsuit, if successful, may bring the Internet to a halt. It's worth a read.

By the way, in a related piece of news, Google gave a glimpse of Google Base, which moves into classified ads. Yes, those same ads that were once ruled by newspapers, now by Craigslist and eBay, but may end up in Google's hands. But when Google has the books and the content and the classifieds and the news... how does any other content provider make money?

I also wonder if the guys in Redmond look south and see a younger version of themselves, and if they look toward IBM and find themselves looking in the mirror.

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