A Library is a Vault for Locking Up Books

Library Books, by timetrax23



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):

Library Books, by Nrbelex

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.


Thanks to timetrax23 and Nrbelex for freely sharing their photos on Flickr! (Click on the pictures above to see larger versions.)

7 thoughts on “A Library is a Vault for Locking Up Books

  1. Making information available is a good thing. How about how the information was made available? If Google doesn’t open its processes and share its own intellectual property, how is it any different from any other corporation looking to make a buck off a public commons? How is this any different from selling bottled water, or mining, forestry, fishing and so on? Google’s methods are tightly guarded, making this sort of activity no different than the hoarding any company does.

    Google is looking to make these books free as in beer, which is inarguably a valuable service, but it’s not a public benefit until the information is truly free.

  2. The link titled “Let’s hope for success for Mr. Lessig in his new pursuit.” is a big fat 404. Which is damned odd, since the link is new and any URL with /blog/archives/ as a substring is supposed to last forever.

  3. Nobody: Gah! Looks like Lessig had his site updated and the permalinks are all messed up.

    Both links above are broken, and are now:

    [redacted — they switched back again — I picked a bad day to link to lessig.org posts!]

    Will get these updated and look for some other broken ones.

    Mario: I thought I heard at one time that they would make the public domain works available in their entirety.

    I think what they are doing is different from mining, forestry and fishing in that this is a digital commons, so their use of the material doesn’t consume it and prevent others from using it also. (Leaving out the wear-and-tear they may cause while scanning.) Sure they’re a corporation looking to make a buck, but I think it’s still a public benefit.

    However, I agree that the information should be free as in freedom, and not just speech. But if our government isn’t going to work on that project, I’m happy that *someone* is for now.

  4. The point is that there are no agreements between publishers/authors and Google for the 9 percent in copyright and in print or for the 75 percent out of print. That’s what makes the scanning illegal. Nobody proposes locking up libraries — that’s a straw man.

    There would also be a great public benefit to confiscating all personal computers in the country and distributing them to the poor. Any volunteers?

  5. Of course no one is proposing locking up books in libraries. But they are proposing locking down information.

    A library offers access to books. Anyone can walk in and read a book. A web page can similarly offer access to books. Why is it bad to let people access the information online rather than in the physical building of a library? The “problem” we have now is the easy duplication of books. Is it only good to have open access if it’s difficult to get to and use?

    Speaking of straw men, if we confiscated all personal computers, their owners would no longer have the use of them. Google’s copy of a book doesn’t deprive the owner of that book his or her use of it.

  6. Information itself is not protected by copyright, so that isn’t the issue.

    Books represent the tangible expression of thought, which is subject to copyright protection. Anti-copyright advocates often confuse information with expression. Is a biography of John Adams merely information? No, it is the author’s creative interpretation of information.

    Nobody should own information. But it is bad to duplicate expression without license, because the person doing the duplicating didn’t create it and doesn’t own it.

    If you have bought a book, you have purchased a licensed duplicate, but that doesn’t mean you own the expression within it, and you have no right to share duplicates with others. The copyright holder owns the expression. This is the essence of copyright law, and few authors would bother to publish anything without that protection.

  7. I disagree — I think there would be plenty of publication without copyright. A lot of it wouldn’t be very good, but that’s no different than today.

    Information/knowledge/expression/data/ideas/what-have-you. In a digital world, I’d like to see them all be freely copyable. We’re entering an age of abundance, where everyone can have something just by virtue of it having been produced once.

    But the key is how to we create the incentives for that production, right? I wouldn’t necessarily do away with copyright, but I’d drastically reduce the term of it. I think people will create the same works for a twenty year term as they will for a life plus fifty term. (Although 20 years is still too long.)

    Another important point is that the genie is out of the bottle. In a free world, with machines that are designed at a low-level to copy bits, we’re not going to be able to effectively enforce copyright. Not unless we sacrifice a lot of freedom and suffer intrusive measures.

    Anyway, I’ve already thrown out many more rambling words written in response — your comments deserve a better response than I have time to write at the moment. I’d like to state my position more coherently, but that will have to wait for another day. (Or never, since I’m not an especially disciplined thinker on these issues!) :-)

    Finally, I’ll defer to http://www.questioncopyright.org as a place for better articulation of concerns around copyright.

    And finally x2, just to be clear, I wouldn’t advocate people break the law and make illegal copies. People should honor copyright. Two licenses that I support strongly — the GPL and Creative Commons — rely on it. However, I don’t want to see fair use trampled either, and that is what I think Google’s book search should be considered as.

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