University Presses Question Google's Library Digitization Effort

As I wrote in “The Infinite Library” in our May issue, librarians are of two minds about Google’s plan to scan the text of millions of library books and make the material searchable online. Some think the Google effort is…

May 25, 2005

As I wrote in “The Infinite Library” in our May issue, librarians are of two minds about Google’s plan to scan the text of millions of library books and make the material searchable online. Some think the Google effort is the book world’s ticket into the next phase of the information age, when all human knowledge will be accessible to everyone. Some (often the same people) worry that Google could end up with too much control over the digital materials and how they can be used.

Now the Association of American University Presses has fired the first salvo in the nascent battle over digitization. In a letter sent to Google last week, the association asked how the company plans to scan and publish library books without infringing on copyrights–which many publishers and authors see as the only guarantee that they will be able to profit from their works.

Google hasn’t responded yet, but a Google spokesperson told the Associated Press that publishers can opt out of the program. Their books will still be scanned (it would be impossible to pick them out of the stream of books Google will digitize in assembly-line fashion), but only bibliographic information and a few lines of text would be available online. This use would presumably be legal under the “fair use” provisions of U.S. copyright law, which allows the copying of short passages from other works for purposes of criticism or review.

Personally, I can see where the publishers are coming from. Digitization and the rise of e-books are upsetting the traditional balance of powers between authors, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and readers. The future is highly uncertain, and naturally university presses would like some assurances that Google won’t destroy their business.

But ultimately I think the publishers will find that their concerns were exaggerated. There’s no stopping the fact that the Internet is changing the way people get information. The change is sweeping through the news business right now, forcing media organizations to think anew about the way they deliver and charge for their products. The time when book publishers will have to confront the same challenge is nearing, and they’ll need to “adapt or die” just like everyone else.

As Larry Lessig acknowledges in our June issue, Copyright will always be the foundation of intellectual property rights, and Google must structure its digitization program in a way that respects those rights. But I believe it behooves publishers and libraries to go along with Google’s plan–or at least use it as a springboard to implement their own digitization efforts. After all, as many publishers who sell their books through Amazon are learning, giving customers the ability to search and preview a book’s content online can actually increase sales of print books, since nobody wants to read an entire book online.

I’m going to be on CNN Headline News today at 1:15 Eastern time to discuss these issues and other Google-related news (its acquisition of Dodgeball.)