It's Time for Google to Share the Wealth

While the search giant makes money from harvesting creative work—including, now, magazines—it’s shown no inclination to pay for it. That has to change.

03.10.09 6:10 AM ET

Did you know that magazines are now part of Google Book Search? It turns out that last December, Google announced “an initiative to help bring more magazine archives and current magazines online, partnering with publishers to begin digitizing millions of articles from titles as diverse as New York magazine, Popular Mechanics, and Ebony.”

The universe of information is vast, and for it to truly flourish, there must be “an ecosystem in which all stakeholders in the content economy have a fair share.”

The Google announcement said nothing about payment, and after hunting through links I found on eReport, there was a note that said Digital Publishing Downunder “in common with the deal agreed with book publishers...[Google] offered to split advertising revenues.” I am grateful to Kathryn McGarr, a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, for bringing this development to my attention and for pointing out that it went largely unnoticed, although it does extend the principle of payment into a major new arena.

Last fall, after the agreement among five publishers, the Authors Guild, and Google establishing a revenue-sharing system for books (still to be approved by the court), I asserted in a couple of columns that the principle of paying for copyrighted material by distributors who are making money from the process should be extended to newspapers and magazines. I was impressed with how much response there was. A prominent piece on The New York Times' Opinionator blog also included a comment from GigaOm, excoriating my position and invoking yet another critic who called it “sheer idiocy.” One of the key points in support of this encomium is that “Google News doesn’t carry advertising, so there are no ‘advertising revenues.’” Well, last month Google announced that it would start running ads alongside Google News results. No suggestion was included about sharing the proceeds.

The issue of transferring some of the enormous profits from the recycling or referrals of copyrighted information to the creators of that content is undoubtedly more complicated than just demanding payment for the work. When I focused on Google in the columns (and in this one), I was, to some extent, using that corporate name as you might Xerox or Kleenex, an enterprise whose dominance of its field has turned the name into a common noun. But the principle is that a very major part of the information world, Google and others, makes money by repurposing—in a variety of ways—creative work, and has no ready inclination to share what it earns from doing so. These days, the “harvesting” of information, a term in increasing use, I’m told, is making money, while the planting and nurturing of it is in trouble.

As I look more deeply into the issue, I find that positions portrayed as clear-cut by various corners of the debate are not so. Google’s initial position with the book publishers, for example, was that scanning books to be able to provide “snippets” was “fair use.” Google apparently believed it would win any litigation on the issue, until it was persuaded in a lengthy negotiation that it might just as well lose, so it settled the publisher-author lawsuits for $125 million. In fact, Google has made licensing deals with The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, acknowledging, therefore, that certain forms of usage should be paid for. The AP, which seems to be ahead of the curve in a number of ways on these matters, has sued an outfit called All Headline News for infringing copyrights on its material, and a New York court recently ruled that the case can proceed, applying a century-old legal doctrine to the Internet era.

The natural divide on these issues seems to be between the digital generation, which accepts the concept (or mythology) that all information is equal and should be available for free, and the traditionalists, who believe that news and feature articles are a commodity that carry costs and have a value that has to be recognized in order for the economics of this system to function. I am persuaded that there is no simple answer to the dispute. But I was pleased to see that Jonathan Rosenberg, a senior vice president for product management at Google, wrote on a company blog, “we need to make it easier for the experts, journalists and editors that we actually trust to publish their work under an authorship model that is authenticated and extensible, and then to monetize in a meaningful way.” Splendid.

Does Rosenberg speak for Google? I have no idea, but one of the people most closely associated with the book publishers’ agreement told me "Google is a complex think it has one point of view, but it doesn’t.” There were presumably hardliners who wanted to battle to judgment on their right to expropriate material on the grounds that the company’s ultimate goal is to make all the world’s information available in every language on the Internet for free. And then there must be those who understand that the universe of information is vast and that for it to truly flourish, there must be as a savvy media expert explained it to me, “an ecosystem in which all stakeholders in the content economy have a fair share.” That’s where the discussion needs to go next.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.