Rent Seekers are Shakedown Artists

Cory Doctorow wrote a long defense of Google Print today.

If adding value to someone else’s creation entitled him to a chance to say no, then anyone who makes an iPod case, an automobile cup-holder phone-cradle, or a lens-wipe for a camera should have gotten permission from the creators of the technologies they’re improving. Hell, every carpenter who ever put together a bookcase owes her livelihood to the books that got shelved on them — why not go after them, too?

This is the real meat of the argument: rent-seeking. Wikipedia’s compact definition of the term is this: “[Rent-seeking] takes place when an entity seeks to extract uncompensated value from others by manipulation of the economic environment.” Rent-seekers are shakedown artists: they don’t add new value, but they demand a piece of the action anyway.

There are plenty of ways that publishers could turn a buck off of indexing their works — they could index them themselves; they could sell premium access to digital versions of their catalogs to Google or its competitors, they could come up with ways of executing searchable indexes that are better than those that Google delivers.

It’s also clear that publishers will benefit from the increased visibility of their works: the more people hear of a book, the more copies of that book will sell. Putting books into search-resultes increases the number of people who’ll hear of them.