Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2005 Issue

Controversy Surrounds Google Print For Libraries



Google has set up barriers similar to those provided with Google Print for Publishers for viewing these still under copyright works. Searchers could never access more than a snippet at a time. Presumably, small snippets would fall within the limits of the "fair use" legal doctrine. We won't attempt to explain this vague legal concept which sometimes allows portions of copyrighted material to be copied, but here's an example. If you publish the line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" on your website, no one is going to be able to successfully sue you. Post the entire book Gone With The Wind on your site and expect to see lawyers at your front door. There are a number of "fair use" exceptions to copyright law, such as ones that involve students and educational institutions, but the most notable one here is the exception for small quotes from a larger piece. However, there is no fixed number of words, or fixed percentage of a book, which can be fairly copied before you slip over the edge of infringement. It's one of those vague borders that no one can definitely define. However, we can clearly say that you are likely to be able to get away with copying a larger amount of text from, say, War and Peace than Goodnight Moon. This is not because Goodnight Moon is unquestionably the more popular book, but because it contains much less text in total.

Google rightly points out that what they are doing can help the copyright holders. Learning about long-forgotten books may renew interest in them, and with renewed interest can come renewed sales. However, that really isn't relevant. If a copyright holder does not wants its material copied, that is their prerogative, no matter how shortsighted it might be. The real question is whether what Google is doing is a violation of those copyrights, and at least at this point, the answer is not clear.

Publishing short snippets of a work would seem to be well within the bounds of fair use. However, what Google is doing (or proposing to do) is copy entire texts. And technically, they may be making entire texts available for public viewing. Of course you could never view it all at once, and the complexity of doing enough Google searches to reveal the entire text of a book through dozen-word snippets is probably comparable to counting all of the stars in the sky, or all of the unsold books posted on ABE. It is essentially impossible. Nonetheless, it is theoretically possible. Then there are issues such as the publishers' concern that someone might hack Google's database and read the entire text of a book. Why they would go to this trouble rather than just purchase a used copy is not clear, but the logic employed by hackers is not one that most of us understand. There may also be issues that Google is using these books for commercial purposes. Greater leniency to copying is afforded educational institutions and not-for-profits than a commercial enterprise like Google, though it must be noted that Google tends to build wonderful services and then worry about how to make money from them later. It is a refreshing oddity.

This should be an intriguing debate to watch. It is another very interesting case pitting the public's right to access and share information via the internet against the creators' right to control and profit from their work. Of course, this dispute has been far more visible in the fields of music and film, but it applies to books too.

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