We interrupt our regularly scheduled clever lead paragraph to bring you a simple explanation of something that apparently needs a lot of explaining: what Google Print is and does. OK: library card catalog. You’ve used one, right? Look up topic; write down book titles; go get books. Now imagine a card catalog that (a) lists every book in every library anywhere, (b) shows you the title of every such book containing the search phrase of your choice (“Crimean War,” “HIV genome,” “clown fetish”), and (c) gives you this information whether you’re online in your bedroom or at an Internet café in Ulaanbaatar. This index is what Google Print is poised to be, and yes, it does stretch the definition of “card catalog” to the breaking point. Just keep in mind the one way in which Google’s version scarcely differs from the classic: If you want to read more than a snippet or two of the texts you’ve located, you still have to go get books.
Unfortunately, once you understand that basic similarity, you have another mystery to solve: why in God’s name the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers are suing to stop Google Print in its tracks. Ostensibly, the reasons are principled. To complete Google Print, Google needs a digital copy of every book it indexes—and plans to make those copies largely from borrowed library books.”Infringement most foul!” cry the plaintiffs, and legally, they may have a case. But help us out here: Aren’t authors and publishers the same people who send free books to any reviewer who asks (and many more who don’t), hoping desperately that the rest of us will—how does it go again? Read reviews, write down book titles, go get books? Yeah, thought so. And we’re still working on a simple explanation for that one.