More than ten years ago, Larry Page proposed that their new start-up company should try to digitise all the books in the world. It was a bit ambitious at that stage to expect such a small company to take on such a massive task, but in 2004 Page felt confident enough to announce the project to the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Five years down the line Google has scanned more than 10 million books and made them accessible online.
Go to Google Books and you literally have a library at your fingertips. Most of the books that Google and their Library Partners (including Harvard, the New York Public Library, Oxford and 25 others) have scanned are searchable online through Google Book Search. Some of them, ones that have fallen into the public domain or are published under a creative commons license, can even be downloaded to keep as a PDF. The catalogue includes a number of rare, hard to find and out-of-print books and magazines. Ones that would be very difficult for anyone to stumble across in the first place, nevermind having the opportunity to browse through on your PC. The fact that these books are digitally scanned means they are saved forever, since digital copies cannot burn, get wet, or get old and disintegrate.
But as noble as the Google Books project seems, it has come under immense criticism. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, believes that because of Google Book Search, the search giant is on the way to becoming “a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information”. It’s not only accusations of a monopoly that is bringing the project to a halt, but also claims of copyright infringement.
The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google citing copyright infringement. They believe Google didn’t have the right to scan and store copyrighted material in the first place. Although Google do not display the full text of copyrighted work, only a searchable summary, they still believe it constitutes more than Google’s claim of fair usage.
Google’s control of so called “orphaned” books, books from publishers or authors that are difficult to find, is also being called into question.
Google has reached a $125 million settlement with the parties, which includes being able to sell out-of-print books online, with publishers and authors able to share in the profits. But objections by authors, rival tech companies and others have been numerous, with concerns being raised about Google’s ability to manipulate prices of these online books. This has led the American Justice Department to request a revised settlement, due 9 November 2009, to comply with US copyright and antitrust laws. [MJ]