“Google and the World Brain” – 2014 Hong Kong Review

Banned books have been the bane of existence for libraries that want to present all-encompassing views on religion, world history and other subjects.  But what happens when a technology company wants to work with libraries to freely provide every book in the history of mankind – banned and otherwise?

“Google and the World Brain,” a thought-provoking documentary by Ben Lewis, attempts to answer that question.  The “World Brain” in the documentary’s title refers to the essay collection by author H.G. Wells, from which passages are read aloud to start and close the film.  Wells’ concept of a global encyclopedia is one from which anyone in the world can draw upon for free information to expand his or her knowledge.  It is this type of data repository that Google – a company with the resources to tackle such an endeavor – hopes to create and share online.

The film, predictably, wastes no time in painting Google as the evil protagonist against a number of librarians, authors, lawyers and others whose fierce protection of their copyrighted work is prioritized over universal omniscience.  Distinguished institutions from Harvard University and its 17 million holdings to library at the Monastery of Montserrat in Spain see the potential with Google, eagerly signing onto the company’s pilot “Project Ocean” despite receiving little information as it unfolds and eventually becomes Google Books.  Of course, initial positive opinions looking back in past tense is a foreboding of the chaos to come.

It is at that point that the film takes a dizzying turn to try to piece together different perspectives of the problems surrounding an online, free-to-access book library, no small feat when the players are scattered across the world.  These range from a rebel writer in Japan to the Chinese company Baidu – which launched a competing copycat service to Google Books – to the Authors Guild in the U.S., which filed a related class action lawsuit against Google in 2005 over copyright issues.  It becomes clear that no resolution is in sight, even when the lawsuit brings together many of these players in a New York City courtroom, indicating that the question about the merits of a universal library may never truly be answered.

While at times not a fair depiction of a giant technology company as the enemy, “Google and the World Brain” does manage to shed much light on the intellectual property concerns aired by champions of the written word.   It also raises interesting perspectives in the battle between a company seemingly wanting to do the right thing (but possibly profit off of it) and the venerable institutions housing these volumes (but without the means to digitize their catalogs on their own).

“Google and the World Brain” screens at the 2014 Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mar. 31 at 9:45 p.m., Apr. 2 at 7:45 p.m., and Apr. 5 at 2:30 p.m.  For ticket information, go to www.hkiff.org.hk.