A stroll through the Hatcher Graduate Library stacks is enough to make one realize that there are thousands of books owned by the University that will never be opened. Authors devote years to creating 400-page analyses of the ecological significance of the Boreal Chickadee or the sleeping habits of late 13th-century Chinese royalty, only to have their books checked out twice in the following century. These books, ranging from the obscure to the well-known, are all important contributions to human knowledge, but their banishment to dusty shelves on the floors of the University’s libraries renders them useless to all but the most dedicated researchers and students.
With this in mind, Google Inc., parent of the popular search engine, began a project eight months ago to make this material accessible to everyone. The Google Print Library Project will digitize the collections of five of the world’s most extensive libraries, including the University’s nearly seven million volumes, and make them available in a searchable online database. The company is collaborating with these libraries to scan their works, making public-domain books completely accessible through their searchable database. For those books still protected under copyright laws, Google will allow users to search through them and view a short excerpt, but the full text will remain unavailable. Corporate publishers have argued that these precautions will not be adequate and have opposed this project since its inception. Under pressure and the specter of lawsuits, Google agreed last week to halt the scanning of copyrighted material until at least November, giving publishers time to ask that their work be omitted from the online library. But Google’s current policy of restricting access to copyrighted material is sufficient and within its legal rights. Corporate publishers who are pressuring Google to shut down the project are standing in the way of what could be a tremendous achievement for the accessibility of information and the spread of human knowledge. And by allowing publishers to opt out of the program, Google has needlessly compromised its original mission of eventually providing a complete searchable database of all the world’s published works.
Google is able to scan copyrighted materials into its database without permission from publishers because of the fair-use doctrine underlying copyright law. That is, in certain non-profit circumstances like teaching, research and news reporting, copyrighted pieces can be reproduced without express permission. Because of fair use, libraries can purchase copyrighted materials and lend them freely; the Google project is no more than a library of immense proportions and accessibility. Rather than fueling illegal reproductions or earning a profit off others’ work, the project will preserve and give the public access to millions of volumes formerly buried in libraries. Copyright law was designed to promote creativity and innovation by ensuring that authors reap the profits from their own work, and the digital library will uphold these principles. Google has taken steps to safeguard copyrighted material by only allowing users to view limited portions of the text; unlike in actual libraries and bookstores, readers on Google Print cannot sit down to leisurely read entire copyrighted books free of charge. Authors and publishers should recognize that including their works in the collection would only increase the exposure of their work and enable Google to build a more complete library.
Especially for academic books, reading audiences are often limited, and printed copies few in number. Only well-funded libraries have the resources to acquire more specialized works, leaving those outside the academic community without access. Ancient and out-of-print texts are even scarcer, virtually unattainable to those who cannot afford to visit university libraries. The creation of a comprehensive online database is the obvious solution to these problems, giving readers worldwide the opportunity to access important material and allowing researchers to find information and references in books that they would never have otherwise sought out.
With over 100,000 new titles published in the United States each year, the sheer number of new books can be overwhelming, and many limit their selections to the few books endorsed by Oprah’s Book Club or that appear on the New York Times best-seller list. A searchable database of millions of volumes will make the wealth of available literature more manageable, helping the public to branch out beyond the Top 40 equivalents of the literary world. With easier access to older and less publicized works that may better match readers’ specific interests, the project could even encourage reading generally and lead to increased book sales.
Google’s library project is a landmark in the convergence of information and technology, and it will provide a great public service by democratizing information and offering a new means of preservation. The vastness of human knowledge becomes more daunting each day, and this project promises to organize accumulated works and greatly multiply the audience an author can reach. Short-sighted, profit-minded corporate publishers should not stand in the way of such a great achievement. Google should resist the pressures of critics who threaten to water down this noble venture and continue scanning books that are copyrighted as well as those in the public domain.