Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2010 Issue

The Google Books Case: A Bridge Too Far?

Sodistnycourt

The Google case is being heard in the Southern District of New York Federal Court.


By Michael Stillman

The legal case over Google's plan to digitize millions of out of print but copyrighted books continues to drag on, a federal judge overwhelmed with arguments both pro and con. Judge Denny Chin of the Federal District Court for Southern New York heard further arguments from the seemingly limitless number of parties and declared there was "too much to digest" to make a quick decision. The Judge is going to need a case of Pepto-Bismol to digest all of the self-righteous and self-interested arguments inundating his in-box. This case presents a microcosm of why America doesn't work anymore.

Meanwhile, the government stepped in and, while being sympathetic to the aim of making these millions of forgotten books once again available to the public, labeled the Google proposal "a bridge too far." Unfortunately, opponents only offer a bridge to nowhere, or more accurately, no bridge at all. The Department of Justice is unhappy that the settlement may co-opt copyright law, but copyright law cannot deal with the current situation, and the legislature, which should be taking the lead, is so gridlocked it could not pass a resolution wishing everyone a good day without one side or the other voting or filibustering it down. So now Google, one of those rare American institutions that actually works, gets dragged into the maelstrom. Not that its answer is without flaws; it's just that its opponents offer reams of complaints with no solutions.

As a quick review, the problem arose when Google began its massive digitization process to make millions of old, out-of-print books available electronically. While most are out of copyright, there are still millions of books, potentially anything published after 1923, that is still under copyright. However, most of the older books in this group are long out of print, very difficult to find, and of no further financial benefit to the copyright holders, printing of them having ceased decades ago. Nevertheless, and abetted by a government which extended copyrights to almost a century a few years back, they are officially still under copyright. And, while technically Google should seek the copyright holders' permission first, rather than digitize the books and see if those holders object (which is what they did), such is essentially impossible as those authors may have died many years ago, and who now owns the copyrights is virtually impossible to determine (those who would have inherited the copyrights to obscure books likely don't even know themselves).

When Google chose to go ahead and digitize these old books anyway, two groups representing authors and publishers sued. Google reached a settlement with these groups, which in effect provides 37% of revenues from selling electronic copies to Google and 63% to the copyright holders, or, if they cannot be found, charity. This settlement, however, resulted in a host of objections from others, from competitors such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, to various government entities, other author and publisher groups, some academics, some library groups, and others with their own particular bone to pick. On Google's side, are other librarians and academics, including the University of Michigan's library, Sony (which makes an electronic reader that competes with Amazon's), some authors, and various organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind that foresees Google's library and voice conversion software opening access to these books to those who cannot see.

So, here is our perspective. It comes not from the interests of Google or Microsoft, Sony or Amazon, but what we believe to be the public interest. The others will take care of themselves, but someone needs to watch out for us.

1. What Google is doing is of enormous benefit to us. Their motivation, be it altruistic or economic, matters not at all. Gaining access to the information in millions of old books, most virtually unobtainable, others requiring searching through libraries far away (presuming they let us in), is of enormous benefit to research, entertainment, and knowledge. This is very, very good.

2. It is irrelevant whether Google makes a ton of money on this, nothing, or loses money. That is their issue. We need to act in a way that best serves the public interest.

3. While seeking permission first to use a copyrighted work is the proper order, in a case where you have 80-year-old copyrights filed by long-dead people and whose ownership is now unknown and impossible to affordably trace, this nicety doesn't work. Where the public interest is involved, and access to knowledge is a major public interest, adaptations, such as requiring the copyright holders, should they still exist, to demand the books be removed is not an unreasonable burden. Copyright laws exist to protect the public interest in the first place. And, when Congress extended those copyrights a few years back to last almost 100 years, under the absurd claim that authors won't write books if they know their great-grandchildren will lose their non-existent royalties only 50 years after they die, instead of 70, Congress was not acting in the public interest. This was Mickey Mouse legislation, literally, as Congress sought to protect the Disney Company's copyright on Mickey Mouse, and made reams of valuable information unavailable to the rest of us in the process. Unfortunately, it's companies like Disney that fill the campaign coffers.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750

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