Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2010 Issue

The Google Settlement: What's at Stake and Why It Is Important

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Google seeks to offer access to "orphan books."


Q. Is what Google is doing legal?
A. It depends on who you ask. So far, Google is not making the full text of copyrighted books available. They only publish "snippets." If you search for terms in a copyrighted book, Google will only show you a line or two around those words, not the full book. Google contends this amounts to legal "fair use" of a copyrighted work. That, they believe, is similar to quoting a few lines in a book review, which book reviewers freely do, as compared to reprinting a book's entire text, which will get you into legal hot water. However, some opponents do not believe even "snippets" constitute fair use. Others object that while not revealing the full text, Google copies the full text from which to generate their "snippets," and they believe this is a copyright violation. Of course, if the court approves this settlement, Google will be able to provide access not to just "snippets," but entire texts of orphaned copyrighted books. This upsets some opponents even more.

Q. Why are some parties, including several Google competitors and the U.S. Department of Justice, concerned about monopoly issues?
A. They believe the settlement may provide Google with a monopoly over "orphan books." This is because the settlement does not guarantee access to these books to anyone other than Google. Another party would have to go through the same process, including possibly being sued for violating copyright laws, and with no guarantee that the independent registry would reach an agreement with them as they have with Google. They might only grant access to Google, giving that firm a monopoly. Google argues that there is nothing in the settlement that prevents others from reaching a similar arrangement with the registry, or for that matter, after certain revisions recently agreed to by Google, an even better one. Besides which, they point out, no one else has ever expressed any interest in making these works available to the public electronically until Google did.

Q. Why is what happens with this settlement important?
A. Libraries have done a wonderful job of making books available to us for almost two centuries, and will continue to play a vital role in making information available to the public in the future. However, their role is evolving, and that role, particularly with "orphan books," is no longer efficient. "Orphan books," by their nature, are more obscure, and consequently not held by many libraries. It can be very difficult for researchers to locate copies, or at least find copies within a reasonable distance of their homes. And, obscure, infrequently used older books are high on the list for de-accession, meaning they become harder to locate as each year passes by. But, there is still another issue that makes online access critical for efficient use. Digitization opens books to searches within their pages that was never possible with the printed word. An obscure old book may have a reference to a person, place or thing you are researching, but you would never know. That important information would be forever hidden from you. With digitized copies subject to a search engine, you can search millions of books at once in a fraction of a second to reveal hidden references within the pages. It's like a gigantic, combined index of millions of books that can be searched in a fraction of a second, and it indexes not just important terms, but every word in every book! What Google is doing is giving a life to these long dead books that is more vibrant than when they were new. We are all winners from this project. So, it is our belief that while more competition is good, and hope the government steps in to assure free competition to all, what Google has started is of enormous value to everyone who seeks knowledge, and therefore must go forward. Knowledge is more than power; it is our very lifeblood. It should not be inhibited.

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