Soon after German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech excoriating Google's attempt to create a massive international digital library, and declaring her support of copyrights for German writers, comes this from Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder:
The vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries," he points out. "Books written after 1923 quickly disappear into a literary black hole. With rare exceptions, one can buy them only for the small number of years they are in print. After that, they are found only in a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores. As the years pass, contracts get lost and forgotten, authors and publishers disappear, the rights holders become impossible to track down."
Inevitably, the few remaining copies of the books are left to deteriorate slowly or are lost to fires, floods and other disasters. While I was at Stanford in 1998, floods damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of books. Unfortunately, such events are not uncommon — a similar flood happened at Stanford just 20 years prior. You could read about it in The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report, published in 1980, but this book itself is no longer available.
Brin recounts other tragic losses of historical and literary heritage including the library at Alexandria and, of more recent vintage, the United States Library of Congress.
It's a good point. I've used some of these vintage books, scanned and made available on the internet by Google, when doing research. They really are useful, and I think Brin makes a good point. The issue for most of us, naturally, is when our own books--which we still hope to make a penny or two on--are made available, nearly in entirety, for nothing. My novel The Child Goddess was scanned right up to the last four pages.
Somehow, in Google's thinking, a great and visionary idea got diluted by--what? It's not greed, surely. I suspect it's more an excess of enthusiasm. It's going to take a while for all of this to sift out.
The whole interview with Brin is here, quoted on Richard Curtis's excellent blog, "Publishing in the 21st Century": http://www.ereads.com/richard_curtis/