Enjoy Your Books!


It’s been nearly ten years since Google started the Google Library project.  People have divided feelings over the project, so in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’ve always been pretty darn excited about this.  The scope of the initial project was to digitally  scan all the books (yes, I said ALL the books!) in the libraries of Harvard University, the New York Public Library, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford.  As you might imagine, this is the kind of thing that can make a librarian say, “WOOOHOOO BUUYA!” … or something like that.

This doesn’t mean you can get ALL those books in digital format now.  If a book is under copyright, you may only see basic bibliographic information.  You may get a “snippet view” showing a few sentences surrounding a term you “googled.”  You may see a limited preview if the author has given permission, or if the book is in public domain (published before 1923) you can get a complete digital view or download.  In all cases, you also get information on where the book is available for purchase.  Here is Google’s official version of how this works:  http://www.google.com/googlebooks/library/index.html.

To me, it’s the public domain aspect that is so exciting.  Suddenly, all the classics of literature, anthropology, philosophy, and all kinds of stuff you never even dreamed of is searchable, findable, and free.  Thousands and thousands of the classics of legal theory can be on your digital device — books that you wouldn’t be allowed to touch or be in the same room with in a standard library because they are so rare and fragile.  And yes, you can also watch Netflix on the same device.

Well, why am I writing about this now if this is a ten-year-old project?  It has also been about ten years that Google has been tied up in litigation with the Authors Guild to stop the project.  The Authors Guild argued that the project violated author copyright protections and violated fair use.  Fair use is always a tricky subject.  Title 17, U.S.C. section 107 lays out the basic tests for fair use as:

  1. The purpose and characters of the us, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrights work as a whole.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

One of the Authors Guild’s main arguments has been that since Google makes a profit from the ads on their search results pages, this is a commercial venture for Google and not fair use.  However, protecting the author’s rights always seemed like a weak argument since more information about published material would seem likely to increase author sales.  Anyway, the Authors Guild was demanding $750 per scanned book, which would result in about a 3 billion dollar settlement if they won.

But they didn’t.  U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Cin has ruled in the case of Authors Guild v. Google that Google did not violate fair use and that the information provided is in the public interest.  So start reading … and enjoy your books!

100_0437Photos: Bob Peck

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