Wednesday, December 29, 2010

GPO Announces Google Partnership to Sell You Items It Provides Elsewhere For Free

The Government Printing Office announced on December 14 of this year a new partnership it has entered into with Google Books to sell -- "for the first time" -- "e-book format" versions of some of its more popular titles. According to the Press Release, the titles will appear in the Google ebookstore, "which can be searched, purchased and read on any connected device with a capable browser."

Keeping America Informed. O RLY?

Publications mentioned specifically in the Press Release include the following, with their current price at the Google ebookstore noted and linked in parenthesis:

The Budget of the United States, Fiscal Year 2011 ($9.99)
Remembering the Space Age ($7.99)
Borden's Dream: The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC ($7.99)

And this is the strange part: If you clicked on the links for these titles above you will quickly realise that there are freely and legally accessible electronic copies of these materials already available -- all of which are also able to be "read on any connected device with a capable browser." Which means that the GPO partnership with Google sells information that can be found freely online from GPO and other government sources, and in nearly identical formats.

The Google ebookstore does not specify the file formats offered for these for-sale books, though the Press Release's qualifier implies strongly that these are PDF files locked into the Google ebookstore interface, or as Google likes to call it, "the digital cloud." Which means that if you download the freely available copies of these publications, you will actually have greater options for access (i.e., offline access, unattached to any specific account, and infinitely transferable) than you will if you purchase them. In other words, this partnership makes no sense at all.

Of course, fans of the Federal Depository Library Program (in which CU Boulder is one of more than 1,000 participants) will already know that the government has a proud (and legally mandated) history of disseminating government information freely to the general public. The FDLP is one of the reasons why this blog exists. So it is a mystery as to why the GPO would actively undermine the FDLP, and seemingly prey upon any general lack of awareness, with no disclaimer provided, that these materials being sold are also very easily found for free in the same or an exceptionally similar digital format.

In short, the partnership between GPO and Google is puzzling to understand from any number of sides. But at least it came in time for Christmas.

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