Library Past, Library Present

Copyright foul or access fair?


Vol. 8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006

Return to Contents

Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Comparing Libraries

Copyright foul or access fair?

"You can never let up on the acquisition of printed materials. Print is fundamental to the humanities, and the visual images are far better than anything yet available through an electronic purveyor. "

"The pressure is on from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic."

Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history

Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Science Study Abroad
The Whys and Why Nots



It sounded like a good idea when Google announced early in 2005 its plans to digitize portions of the collections of several major research libraries, including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford University, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library—until authors and publishers cried copyright foul. The Google Library project would allow users to view entire books that are in the public domain (that is, no longer protected by copyright), and excerpts of those that are still under copyright. Michigan, Stanford, and Harvard, however, indicated some willingness to allow Google to offer compete works of copyrighted materials. Google estimated that the project could take as long as ten years at a cost of up to $200 million.

Ten years may turn out to be a very conservative estimate. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the American Association of University Presses have argued that Google’s ambitions are illegal and amount to copyright infringement, since they are making copies of works available for commercial purposes without consent of copyright owners. Google countered that the project falls within the boundaries of “fair use,” but publishers aren’t buying it, noting Google would not share any of
the advertising revenue associated with the library project.

In July, the AAP asked Google to stop scanning copyrighted books published by the group’s members for at least six months. The following month, Google announced that it would stop scanning until November. A spokesman for the company told the Associated Press that “We think most publishers and authors will choose to participate in the publisher program in order to introduce their work to countless readers around the world.”

He was wrong. In September, the Authors Guild, which represents about eight thousand writers, filed a class action suit for copyright infringement, seeking an injunction and monetary damages. Just weeks later, the AAP filed its own suit against the Internet giant, seeking an injunction against illegal scanning. Google called the legal action “short-sighted” and said that the project was a historic effort to make millions of books easier for people to find and buy.

But in an October 19 AP article, Patricia Schroeder, president and CEO of the AAP, accused Google of setting a dangerous precedent: “The whole principle of copyright law is that you get to decide if it’s good for you. Why should Google get to decide?” — S.F.