Pam Samuelson on the Dead Souls of Google Book Search

Pam Samuelson has posted a short essay about the “Dead Souls of the Google Booksearch Settlement.” The essay appears in Communications of the ACM, the flagship magazine for the professional society of computer scientists, where Samuelson writes a regular column. She takes her metaphor from Gogol:

Chichikov, its main character, travels around the Russian countryside to buy “dead souls” so that he can become a wealthy and influential man. In the early 19th century, you see, Russian landowners had to pay annual taxes on the number of serfs (counted as “souls”) they owned as of the last census.

Chichikov offered to buy “dead souls” (i.e., serfs who had died since the last census) from the landowners. His plan was to acquire enough of these souls so that he could take out a large loan secured by his portfolio, and thereby to become a wealthy man.

In Gogol’s story, Chichikov’s scheme falls apart. Rumors fly that the souls he owns are all dead and he flees the town in disgrace.

However, Google’s “dead souls” scheme may pay off handsomely, as the settlement would, in effect, give Google the exclusive right to commercially exploit millions of orphan books.