The Press, September 2009

“You can make money without doing evil.” So say giant US internet company Google in their corporate mission statement. But they are beating up on revered Kiwi authors like Janet Frame in trying to digitise the world’s books. Are Google brave or stupid marketers?

Google’s book project is an effort to digitise (i.e. scan and put copies on the internet) the world’s books and is generating huge controversy here and abroad. Kiwi author Linley Hood was recently reported as saying Google was stealing authors' intellectual property and their livelihood.

The book search service is currently available in 35 languages with around 10 million books in their library and counting. They are experimenting with some amazing functionality - letting people browse books by locations mentioned in the text and creating ways to navigate between books. People can now even create their own book collection online.

It is a complicated story, but fundamentally Google have taken a ‘it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission’ approach. Basically if a book is not available for sale in US they consider it out of print and therefore within their rights to scan and use without permission.

Google have processed without permission books by Kiwi authors Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Sir Edmund Hillary, Witi Ihimaera, Michael King, James K Baxter and Keri Hulme, all without any permission from anyone.

Authors are up in arms here and in other countries. Predictably Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon have formed an alliance to fight Google’s moves, and the whole thing is subject of court action in New York state.

Of course controversy is not new for Google. They have pushed the boundaries before with services like Google Street View in 2007, which gave us street level images of our cities. From humble beginnings they have grown into a confident, aggressive company.

Formed with a mission to “to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” they have grown from a start-up based at the Stanford University, to a $30 billion company (i.e. equivalent to about one quarter of New Zealand’s economy).

The search engine service that was their first offering was unlike anything else available at the time. It wasn’t packed with flashing advertisements and it delivered very good (i.e. relevant) search results. Users flocked to it, and the rest is history. Once advertisements were introduced into their service they found a great revenue stream and started to diversify into many other things.

“Gmail” email, a mobile phone, mapping the world, news tracking, picture storage etc. Last year they released a web browser called Chrome and are now developing that product into an operating system – the basic software for any computer – that plays right in Microsoft’s space. They have been seen by many as the shining hero against Bill Gates’ evil empire.

Have they overstepped the mark with Google Books? Is this Google becoming a big monopoly that starts to play by different rules, exploiting its position, or is there a lesson for all Kiwi companies to be more aggressive in their approach?

They have copied millions of books then asked for forgiveness. It is possible that the value Google deliver to us outweighs our concerns about them abusing their power. Information has been made a lot more accessible which has benefited us all. They have also created platforms, like Google Maps, that other providers build on to provide useful services.

Remember many earlier innovations have challenged our perceptions and caused legal action. The first motorcars were seen as so dangerous that a person holding a red flag was required to walk in front of them. But manufacturers like Ford persevered against entrenched opposition from stagecoach and railroad companies, and popularised the car.

Closer to home was the recent launch of the Christchurch-made YikeBike at EuroBike in Germany. It challenges convention about what a bike is, and will therefore what safety regulations apply to it, but that hasn’t deterred those entrepreneurs having a go and trying to change the world of transportation.

Although it is too early to judge the effect of Google Books, controversies over Google Streetview have done no harm to their brand. According to the major Interbrand study, the Google brand leapt from 20th to 10th most valuable in the world between 2007 and 2008. That represents an increase in value of over 40%.

Maybe they are lesson to us all to focus on delivering on our company mission, the fundamental way we deliver value to our stakeholders, rather than worry about rules and regulations. Google have done this in the past and delivered a lot of good for a lot of people, including their own shareholders.

Delivering value to consumers is what great marketing is all about. Often the innovations that create the most value challenge our perceptions of the conventional and upsets entrenched interests. And Google is certainly upsetting people.

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