April 15, 2009

Somebody’s Looking For A Fight [11:03 am]

Maureen Dowd finished up with Hilary Clinton; now she’s on to Google, with this trenchant presentation that misses the point while disseminating all sorts of hogwash: Dinosaur at the Gate (pdf)

Google is in a battle royal over whether it has the right to profit so profligately from newspaper content at a time when journalism is in such jeopardy.

Robert Thomson, the top editor of The Wall Street Journal, denounced Web sites like Google as “tapeworms.” His boss, Rupert Murdoch, said that big newspapers do not have to let Google “steal our copyrights.” The A.P. has threatened to take legal action against Google and others that use the work of news organizations without obtaining permission and sharing a “fair” portion of revenue. But what’s fair will be hard to prove.

“So,” I ask Schmidt in a small conference room that, disturbingly, has an ejector seat. “Friend or foe?”

[...] Why can’t Google, which likes to see itself as a “Don’t Be Evil” benevolent force in society, just write us a big check for using our stories, so we can keep checks and balances alive and continue to provide the search engine with our stories? After all, Schmidt acknowledges that a lot of what’s on the Internet is “a sewer.” He told me people don’t come to Google for “crap,” but for what’s “useful.”

He declines to pony up money, noting that newspapers could opt out of giving their content to Google free and adding, “We actually like making our own money for obviously good capitalist reasons.”

He says: “The best way to get out of this is to invent a new product. That’s the way Google thinks. Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”

Yes, the publishing industry is in trouble. Yes, the Internet is having an effect. Yes, there are all sorts of peculiar complexities that arise during the cycles of creative destruction that mark a capitalist economy. But, as I have learned from folks within this industry, it’s not like the incumbents didn’t get any warning, and it’s not like they couldn’t have acted on what they saw happening around them. And there’s plenty of economic history that backs up the fact that this is what it means to live in a competitive, innovative economy — you have to work to stay ahead, and it just doesn’t look like the people running many of these companies wanted to work that hard.

Moreover, it’s not at all obvious that Maureen’s proposed solution, to tax those on the ascendant to sustain those on the downslope, really makes any sense. And we certainly know that there are all sorts of dangers associated with simply legislating rights that never before existed.

The closing bit is good, though — at least maybe Maureen will get to work:

When I ask [Google CEO Eric Schmidt] if human editorial judgment still matters, he tries to reassure me: “We learned in working with newspapers that this balance between the newspaper writers and their editors is more subtle than we thought. It’s not reproducible by computers very easily.”

I feel better for a minute, until I realize that the only reason he knew that I wasn’t so easily replaceable is that Google had been looking into how to replace me.

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