Himalayas of information are still waiting to be conquered. And the highest peaks of all are the great libraries of the world, the repositories of the 100m or more books that have been produced since Johann Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century.
In December 2004, Google announced its assault on these peaks. It had made a deal with five libraries — with the NYPL and at the universities of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford — to scan their stocks, making their contents available online via Google Book Search (books.google.com). Ultimately, it is thought, some 30m volumes will be involved. Microsoft, meanwhile, has made a deal with the British Library to scan 100,000 books — 25m pages — this year alone. Google has now scanned 1m books.
The first thing to be said is that Google Book Search, though still in its “beta” or unfinalised form, is an astonishing mechanism. Putting my own name in came up with 626 references and gave me immediate access to passages containing my name in books, most of which were quite unknown to me. Moreover, clicking on one of these references brings up an image of the actual page in question.
But the second thing to be said is that I could read whole passages of my books of which I own the copyright. At once a huge intellectual property issue looms. The Americans are ploughing ahead with this, scanning in material both in and out of copyright. The British — at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the British Library — are being more cautious, allowing only the scanning of out-of-copyright books. This may, of course, mean nothing, since the big American libraries will, like the Bodleian and the British Library, contain every book published in English, so they will all ultimately be out there on the net.
American publishers are not happy. Before its 2004 announcement, Google had been doing deals with individual publishers to scan their books. But digitising the libraries would seem to render these deals defunct. Furthermore, since Google is acquiring copyright material at no cost, it seems to be treating books quite differently from all other media. It is prepared to pay for video and music, but not, apparently, for books. The Google defence is that their Book Search system is covered by the legal concept of “fair dealing”. No more than 20% of a copyright book will be available, the search is designed to show just relevant passages, and it will provide links to sites where the book can be bought.
Unimpressed, the Authors Guild, supported by the Association of American Publishers, has started a class action suit against Google. A deal may yet be done, but neither side sounds in a compromising mood, and it looks likely that this will go all the way to the Supreme Court, whose ruling on this case may prove momentous.
I’d be interested in what the lawyers think of this. My personal reaction is that I’m excited about getting all the books since Gutenberg on the internet. For the first time in history, everyone with a computer will have access to all knowledge. Anyone with initiative and ability will be able to pursue scholarly studies.
At the same time, if an author does not want his book scanned, Google and Microsoft should respect his decision. Perhaps in the future books will be published for a short period, maybe five or 10 years, then they will go online. Surely having a book in Google’s database is preferable to it going out of print and never being heard of again. And they should set it up so that readers pay Google something to read anything more than a short excerpt. That way an author’s book is available to those who want it and the author still makes some money from his intellectual property.
At some point a book should go into public domain, but when?