U’S DEAL WITH GOOGLE
Disrespect for property
If I were to walk into a photocopy shop and ask for a duplicate of a copyright-protected book, the shop workers would show me the door. It does not matter whether I intended to distribute snippets of the text around the world or do anything else with the copy — the courts have ruled that the unlicensed duplication of an in-copyright book is illegal.
But when the University of Minnesota announces plans to digitally duplicate books, including copyright-protected works, in a commercial project with Internet giant Google (Star Tribune, June 7), it calls the effort groundbreaking and valuable.
As an author who teaches at the University of Minnesota, I wonder how I will talk to students about academic honesty and integrity when the university itself shows such disrespect for intellectual property rights. At the very least, the U should have awaited the resolution of the serious legal challenges to the Google Print project before letting Google have its way with the precious library collection.
Jack El-Hai, Minneapolis, Letter to the Editor, StarTribune, 17 June 2007
(The linked letters page may disappear behind the Strib’s paywall in a few weeks.)
Setting aside the question of whether Google is exercising fair use, that last bit is the most telling to me: “letting Google have its way with the precious library collection.” I agree that it is a precious collection, but what does he want to do? Lock up all the books to protect them from the prying eyes of knowledge seekers?
It seems to me the purpose of a library is to provide access to knowledge. If Google can help make the content of library books more accessible to searchers, it is doing a Good Thing. (And it’s great if the U doesn’t have to spend millions of dollars to do the job itself, although there are concerns and potential downsides to letting a private company create this index. (2/22/09: Removed stale link to a post elaborating on some of those concerns.) I absolutely think Google should be able to do it, but will we then tend to let the public collection and public digitization efforts fall in to neglect?)
What about the disrespect for “intellectual property” rights? To address that, I like what Larry Lessig has to say (writing about the recent foolishness of the Macmillan Publishers guys):
Remember (and I did a 30 minute preso here to explain it) Google Books proposed to scan 18,000,000 books. Of those, 16% were in the public domain, and 9% were in copyright, and in print. That means, 75% of the books Google would scan are out of print but presumptively under copyright.
The publishers and Google already have deals for the 9%. And being in the public domain, no one needs a deal for the 16%. So the only thing the publishers might be complaining about is the 75% which are out of print and presumptively under copyright.
With respect to these, Google intends to index the books, and make them searchable. If a hit comes through the search engine, Google offers snippets of the text relevant to the search. The page includes links to libraries where the book might be borrowed; it includes links to book stores where the book might be purchased. And, I take it, if the “publishers” were to choose to publish the book again, it would also include a link to that publisher.
Finally, any author who wants to be removed from this index can be removed. As with Google on the net, anyone can opt out.
–Lawrence Lessig, blog, of just how little publishing executives understand
If you put it that way, it sounds like there is a lot of public benefit to this project. It certainly does seem like a “groundbreaking and valuable” effort. One of the big problems with copyright is that it hinders access to a large number of books that are in copyright but out of print. Google’s Book Search would help us find these books. (It might have been helpful in my own recent search for buried treasure.)
Information will be emancipated. Publishers will either adapt to a world in which copying is easy and everywhere, or they’ll die off. Unless they can buy off the politicians they need and get some nasty laws passed… oh, oh. Congressmen go pretty cheap these days. Let’s hope for success for Mr. Lessig in his new pursuit.