After a government-and-monopoly-inspired period in which Microsoft had to pretend to be a gentle force for global good, the company is being forced to return to its ruthless roots. Ironically, it is doing this in part by decrying the unfair practices of a competitor and shamelessly sucking up to the Establishment.
Today’s speech by Thomas Rubin, Microsoft’s associate general counsel, to the Association of American Publishers is entitled “Searching for Principles: Online Services and Intellectual Property.” Based on what the speech says, however, it might as well have been titled: “How Google Intends to Put You Out of Business, and How Microsoft Can Help.”
To those who watched Microsoft work its competition-annihilating magic in the 1990s, the speech is amusing in its role-reversal. Unless the company really has had a DNA transplant–which, after a decade of anti-competitive regulatory attack, it may have–Microsoft doesn’t give a damn about the Association of American Publishers (or, for that matter, any other established business or “fair use” practice). What Microsoft cares about is Microsoft, and now that Google has officially added “crush Office” to the corporate “To Do” list, Microsoft no longer needs to hold back.
As to the speech’s assertions…Is Google really taking an unfair attitude toward copyright? In some ways, yes. Should this attitude wake up the Establishment? One hopes so. But one also hopes that the publishing Establishment, at least, will handle the situation in a more forward-looking manner than, say, the music industry dealt with Napster, et al.
Google Books could end up being the best marketing tool the publishing industry (or, at least, authors) have ever had. Once a book is indexed, readers and researchers who would otherwise never even have heard of it might effortlessly discover that it contains exactly what they are looking for.
The real value in a book, moreover–to the only two parties that really matter (author and reader)–does not lie in wood pulp and ink but in words and ideas. In the old days, publishers helped produce both. In recent years, however, many publishers have essentially become book packagers, whose core expertise and service lie in producing and marketing attractive-looking wood pulp.
So if the end result of Google Books is to radically change the traditional publishing business, this may serve writers and readers (and, yes, Google) just fine. As long as a reasonable revenue-sharing model can be developed, writers will keep writing, editors will keep editing, printers will keep printing (for those who want paper), and readers will keep reading. The only casualty will be the traditional publishing industry–and, perhaps, Microsoft.