Scanning the Stacks: The Digital Rights Issues Behind Book Digitization Projects

Page 3 of 3


Opening the Card Catalog
Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, insist that they had envisioned a digital library back before their company became a household word. Besides the commercial potential, Google Print could make an extensive and comprehensive library of knowledge available to users around the world. Gathering the wealth of information available in books together and preserving it digitally for future generations makes sense even to opponents, who aren't criticizing Google's motives—only its methods.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote an editorial piece for the Wall Street Journal defending the legal ground on which his company is staking Google Print Library: "Even those critics who understand that copyright law is not absolute argue that making a full copy of a given work, even just to index it, can never constitute fair use. If this were so, you wouldn't be able to record a TV show to watch it later or use a search engine that indexes billions of Web pages." 

Supporters of Google Print Library see the program as "simply the logical digital extension of the card catalog," according to Rebecca Jeschke, media relations coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The courts upheld the common search engine practice of caching copyright material in the 1999 case, Kelly v. Arriba Soft. Google hopes that its estimation of a snippet will be short enough to qualify for the fair use exemption outlined in this landmark case for digital copyright law. "Google apparently believes that it can fulfill the spirit, if not the letter, of copyright law, at least as far as publishers are concerned," says analyst Strohlein. "What remains to be seen is if the courts will agree that Google's copyright protections go far enough." 

Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, defends Google's position, and feels that courts will agree. "Imagine, for example," he says, "if mapmakers had to ask permission from property owners before they could include property on a map. You could imagine including only some of the landscape, based on who gave you permission, but it wouldn't be a map. Similarly, you could imagine a library card catalog that only included books whose copyright owners had given permission, but it would look a lot more like the end-caps at Borders than the card catalog in your school library." 

A Course Correction and a Courtroom Showdown
Google Print Library will soon have its day in court. It resumed scanning copyrighted materials on November 1, as promised. Google says that its voluntary hiatus gave publishers the chance to opt out of the program, and that stopping to secure the rights for every book it comes across will slow its efforts.

"We're always happy to resume negotiations," says Schroeder, noting that the AAP initiated the talks this summer with Google, and that it would still rather work with, rather than against, Google's plan. However, Schroeder stands behind the AAP's position that Google Print Library is "a lousy deal for people providing the content," and is confident that the courts will support her. 

Google began to back down slightly from its tough stance by publicly promising to start with portions of the University of Michigan's collection not under copyright—although it will still be scanning any protected materials that slipped in. Strohlein predicts that "Google will continue to push the envelope in this area to fulfill its mission of making the world's information universally accessible—this move to start with public domain works should be viewed as a course correction, not a permanent detour." Google Print Library's fans hope that publishers and users alike will give it a chance to prove its value before shutting it down. "We hope that more people learn about the project," says EFF's Rebecca Jeschke, "so they will get excited about its potential." 

Critics and detractors of these book digitization projects might disagree on the exact shape future of digital content will take, but all agree that the Internet, with its nearly universal availability, unlimited storage capacity, and powerful search capabilities, needs a comprehensive library. As Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft begin building the foundations of their online collections, the Internet community will be waiting, watching, and reading between the lines.

Companies Featured

American Association of Publishers

Authors Guild 

Electronic Frontier Foundation


Internet Archive


Open Content Alliance 

Outsell, Inc.

University of Michigan Library


Sidebar: Google Print Reaches Out To Europe
Google Print Library has branched out to Europe, where it has launched eight native-language versions of Google Print in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and Spain. Some participating countries are happy to be a part of the program—European libraries are only now beginning to digitize their massive collections, and pleased to have a partner to share the burden. Google's European invasion has alarmed some, however, especially the French. French president Jacques Chirac and Jean-Noel Jeanneney, president of the French National Library and author of When Google Challenges Europe, say that Google Print Library promotes American cultural hegemony and poses a threat to the preservation of the French language and historical perspective. In response to their concerns, the European Union has begun work on its own book digitization project, the European Library, which will borrow from the collections of at least nine national libraries in Europe. 

Page 3 of 3