SOON AFTER man figured out that he could communicate to others through markings on the walls, duplication and distribution became a primary concern for the creator. As the means of communicating through drawing and words evolved from cave walls to scrolls and, later, books, writers realized that with the help of others, their stories could reach more people -- and publishing was born. Then and now, the publisher's primary responsibility has been to find the largest possible audience for the writer's work.
Over time, publishers found different vehicles to accomplish that goal, from the earliest bound books handwritten by scribes and illuminated by monks, to printed hardcover texts and then paperbacks, which brought reading to the masses. In parallel, they found increasingly effective methods of marketing books to ever-wider audiences, from the tent shows and sandwich boards of earlier days to consumer advertising, book reviews and author interviews in newspapers and on radio, television and, recently, the Internet.
Over the last 10 years, the pace of change in book publishing and the digital world has been great. Online retailing, print on demand, digital archives, repurposed and bundled content, downloadable books and audio, content delivery via mobile technology and enhanced content all present intriguing opportunities that publishers have eagerly utilized in their mission to bring books to readers.
These new capabilities are essentially variations on what has come before. If a paper-and-ink book is a container for ideas, an electronic book or searchable text is simply a different container. The Internet is both a marketing vehicle and a distribution channel. But even as the packaging, marketing and distribution models for books are changing in the digital age, the author's words -- the stories, concepts and ideas, the "content" -- remain the essential ingredient in any book, no matter the format or method of delivery.
It didn't take long for our technology partners to figure that out, which is why so many of them are looking to make content available for their search engines, iPods, personal digital assistants and mobile phones. After all, an iPod without music or video has little intrinsic value. But as technology companies, online retailers and search engines focus increasingly on accumulating content as a way to drive traffic, amass users or sell advertising, publishers and other content providers are faced with a multitude of choices and thorny issues that have critically important, far-reaching and long-range consequences for their businesses.
Although much has been made of the recent lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Publishers on behalf of five plaintiffs (including my own company, Simon & Schuster) against Google for its plans to digitize copyrighted works in the collections of some of the world's major libraries, it remains to be seen whether searching and reading bits and bytes will sell more books. But that is almost beside the point.
Google's attempt to cast itself as the world's archive, delivering books to billions, seems like a noble enough goal at first glance, but the truth is that Google is essentially a newer -- albeit highly effective -- distribution pipeline for the content of books. From that perspective, it becomes imperative that Google works with the other long-standing members in the creative ecosystem -- in this case, the authors and copyright holders -- to make certain that the interests of all are dealt with equitably. Anything short of that, and in particular the scanning and commercial use of copyrighted works without permission, amounts to nothing less than theft.
Authors and publishers have fought for hundreds of years to keep control of their work and its use in order to make a viable living from it. So the publishers' lawsuit is not an argument over "snippets," as Google would have you believe. It is about permission and copying for commercial use.
These essential principles of copyright law can and must be observed by new and old media alike. Indeed, other search engines such as Yahoo, Microsoft and the Open Content Alliance have announced plans for book-search projects that are in line with current copyright conventions. Even Google has announced that in Europe, where the law is even more stringent, its Book Search project will respect copyrights.
For Google, working with American publishers on its library project on a permission basis is certainly possible, but an inconvenience to its philosophy of gobbling up free content to support its advertising-based business model. Copyright is a bump in the road it would rather avoid, and it seems willing to litigate in order to do so.
Yes, let's work together to create great, searchable online databases of books and their content, and then see if readers come. Publishers and authors have been busily digitizing their titles in preparation for that moment. The paper-and-ink book will not go away anytime soon because it is a fabulously simple, enormously practical, appealing and entertaining product that is difficult to improve on.
But whatever the future balance between page and screen turns out to be, the one thing that will not change is the durability of great and creative work, and the author's right to be compensated for that.