Have you heard about a movie called Google and the World Brain? It’s a new documentary that takes aim at Google’s book scanning project. As you can see from the trailer, Google is painted as a monopolist who is out to control all the world’s knowledge:
This film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and it’s been getting some attention lately. I myself heard about it via Techcrunch, where a mildly written review described the film thusly:
From the second it starts, director Ben Lewis’ opinion is clear: Google Books is as an insidious plot for data domination. See, Google didn’t just want to make a universally accessible library. It wanted to use all the knowledge to improve its search and artificial intelligence projects.
I haven’t seen this movie, and after I saw the trailer (and read the review) I realized I don’t need to see it. It’s not just that I disagree with the director’s bias or that he started out to justify a conclusion rather than explain, inform, or reveal. No, the reason I’m skipping this film is that the premise is nonsense.
The claim that Google was attempting to monopolize knowledge does not stand up to scrutiny. It’s just not possible to achieve, not in any practical terms.
The first fundamental flaw with the claim of attempted monopolization is the simple fact that Google didn’t scan and destroy the only copy of the books. There are other copies, and that means that those books can still be read or scanned by someone other than Google.
The second fundamental flaw is the simple fact that Google doesn’t control all the book scanners in the world. There’s nothing to stop some other tech company or even individuals from striking a deal with libraries to scan books. So even if we assumed that these physical books contained unique knowledge (they don’t), there will always be a way to get that information out of the books and into the digital world.
If Google actually succeeded in gaining a monopoly on a certain topic, that monopoly would soon be broken. If nothing else, some helpful soul would scan the same books as Google, post the scans online, and the knowledge would be once again outside Google’s control.
P.S. And I haven’t even touched on the broader aspect of all the knowledge that’s not contained in the books scanned by Google; the sheer vastness of the information currently available on the web dwarfs what little unique content is found in the books scanned by Google.