Column: Let Google scan…

by Mathew on November 1, 2005

Here’s a column I just posted at globeandmail.com about Google resuming its Library scanning project:

Google, the search-engine giant that has become so ubiquitous its name hardly even sounds stupid any more, has started scanning and indexing library books again under its contentious Google Print Library project, despite the fact that the company is being sued by several groups of authors and publishers. Under the project, Google has plans to scan millions of books from the collections of several university libraries, including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Michigan. The groups that have sued — including the Authors Guild, which represents several thousand U.S. writers, and the Association of American Publishers — argue that by doing so, Google is infringing on their copyright and therefore it must stop.

After meeting with the AAP in July, Google agreed to stop scanning books while it tried to reach an agreement with authors and publishers, or at least explain to them what it was trying to do, but said that it would begin scanning again on November 1. The company has said that it believes the library project falls under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, which allow portions of copyrighted works to be used for certain public purposes, under certain conditions.

Although Google has reportedly said it will concentrate on rare and out-of-print books in the early stages of the project, the company says it still plans to scan all the library books it can, regardless of whether they are protected by copyright or not. Unless the author and publisher groups decide to back off in their fight against the search company, it seems inevitable that the two sides will wind up in court — which might actually be a good thing, since it could help to clarify just how far “fair use” rights extend in the new digital age.

Regardless of how the case is decided, this has to qualify as the biggest example of cutting off your nose to spite your face since the movie industry tried to kill the VCR. Instead of fighting Google on its scanning project, authors and publishers should be helping it as much as they can.

What is the biggest single problem confronting a new or non-blockbuster author? Finding an audience. Try as they might (and some try harder than others) publishers can’t market every book like it was the next Harry Potter, and so many valuable and worthwhile books don’t find the audience that they could. What better way could there be of connecting authors with interested readers than by having their books be part of a giant searchable archive, just as Google does with the web? No matter how arcane the topic of your book, someone can find it without even knowing that it exists — they search for a term, and if it appears in a book, excerpts from that book magically appear. Better still, Google will point them to places where they can buy it.

The issue isn’t whether Google will be providing complete copies of books on-line — it won’t. The company has made it clear that it will only be showing a few sentences from any particular work, and users will be restricted to a small number of searches for the same book, to prevent any desperate thief from piecing together his own book from repeated searches. Google also won’t be selling ads on pages that contain text from scanned books, to avoid the charge that they are profiting from someone else’s copyrighted work.

Despite all this, however, the Authors Guild and the AAP argue that Google is violating copyright simply by scanning the books — even if no one ever actually sees a single page from them. Even the argument that Google will be providing an almost unparalleled level of access to books to anyone, from anywhere — the kind of thing that libraries themselves do — doesn’t wash with the authors and publishers. One authors’ representative in Britain said that this is like saying “It’s okay to break into my house because you’re going to clean my kitchen.”

It’s hard to imagine a more unbalanced or antagonistic response to something that is so clearly a benefit — and not just a benefit to society but to the actual authors themselves. We’re not talking about a company scanning books and then making money from selling them, or even pieces of them. We’re talking about a company providing a kind of digital card catalogue for every book that has ever been published.

Not surprisingly, there is a debate raging among the literary and on-line community about whether Google’s project falls under the U.S. doctrine of fair use (which also exists in different forms in most other countries). That principle allows excerpts from a copyrighted work to be reproduced “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…, scholarship or research.” The clause in question says that determining fair use takes into account the purpose of the use, including whether it is commercial or not, and also the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work, and search engines have been found to fall under that provision in previous copyright cases.

Whether Google’s use can be categorized as commercial is debatable, but its effect on the potential market for a work shouldn’t be. It could be the best thing that ever happened to some authors and their works — and that’s why they should be greeting Google with open arms, not clenched fists.

Update: Pat Schroeder, a former member of Congress and head of the AAP, and newspaper columnist and former member of the House of Representatives Bob Barr wrote an op-ed piece that ran in the Washington Times that is one of the most unbalanced and inflammatory things I’ve read on this issue. For one thing, they say Google hasn’t said what it considers a “snippet” from a copyrighted work, which is blatantly false, and they argue that the search company will “kill creativity” because authors won’t want to create new works that are scanned and indexed. It seems to me that authors would be even more interested in doing so if they were convinced readers could find their book more easily and be directed to somewhere they could buy it. Copyfight has a good roundup of comments on Schroeder and Barr too.

With all due respect to Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher.com, who I agree with on many other things, his statement that Google Print and the Library Project “devalues the labor of people and rewards machine-based content production” doesn’t make any sense. It’s like saying that by indexing all the billions of Web pages that it does, Google devalues the content that appears on those pages (such as Tom’s). All it does is make that content searchable, which if anything could make it more valuable, not less. If Google were providing it all for free, that would devalue it. I would argue that it is possible for value to accrue to both content owner and search engine.

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