Google Books vs. Every Published Author, Part I

I have written several books. Perhaps you have purchased one of them. If you did, thank you. As a result of your purchase, I probably collected about $1.25 in royalties. You may have read the book, and perhaps, you lent it to a friend. You may have copied a few pages, or used the book for research, maybe even quoted from my book in your own work. That’s fine with me, and I am sure it would be fine with just about any author.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to make copies of the book and distribute it, for free or for a fee, and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to publish some or all of my book’s contents on the web–even if you believed that what you were doing would make the world a better place. I expect that you think about my book in much the same way.

Denny_ChinHowever reasonable, that’s no longer the way things work. Now, it seems, making the world a better place is reason enough to freely distribute copyrighted work without permission of the copyright holder. Here’s the logic and the new law of the land as set forth by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin in a case decided this month in favor of Google (which scanned and distributed millions of books, without permission, in the public interest) and the Author’s Guild (which cried foul, lost, plans to appeal to a higher court, and may lose again).

“First, Google Books provides a new and efficient way for readers and researchers to find books. It makes tens of millions of books searchable by words and phrases. It provides a searchable index linking each word in any book to all books in which that word appears.” In short, Google Books completely transforms the use of books, especially in research, and it is currently in use in a great many research institutions.

Second, in addition to being an important reference tool, Google Books greatly promotes a type of research referred to as “data mining” or “text mining.” Google Books permits humanities scholars to analyze massive amounts of data — the literary record created by a collection of tens of millions of books. Researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.” So it’s fair to say that Google Books is a fantastic tool for scholars because it allows them to scan a lot of books quickly, identify and study patterns.

“Third, Google Books expands access to books. In particular, traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books. Google Books provides print-disabled individuals with the potential to search for books and read them in a format that is compatible with text enlargement software, text-to-speech screen access software, and Braille devices. Digitization facilitates the conversion of books to audio and tactile formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities. Google Books facilitates the identification and access of materials for remote and underfunded libraries that need to make efficient decisions as to which resources to procure for their own collections or through interlibrary loans.” Unquestionably, placing a lot of books in a gigantic database is very useful for all sorts of reasons and provides tremendous public interest benefits.

“Fourth…Google Books helps to preserve books and give them new life. Older books, many of which are out-of-print books that are falling apart buried in library stacks, are being scanned and saved.” Absolutely right, but “out-0f-print” and “public domain” are not the same thing. Many of my books are currently out-of-print, and I plan to republish some of them because they are my property. Anything that is in the public domain should be rescued for the good of the public. Anything that’s out-of-print, but still protected by copyright, cannot be reasonably treated in the same way.

“Finally, by helping readers and researchers identify books, Google Books benefits authors and publishers. When a user clicks on a search result and is directed to an “About the Book” page, the page will offer links to sellers of the book and/or libraries listing the book as part of their collections.” That’s nice, but let’s consider whether the copyrighted work should be there in the first place.

Somewhere along the way, my books were published, and a public library purchased a copy. We all understand that the library will buy one copy of the book and then distribute that book to any of its cardholders. Neither the publisher nor I, the author, granted the library any kind of right to digitize the book’s contents. Google borrowed my book from the library, scanned its contents (without my permission) and now distributes one book in whole and another in part (without my permission). And because my book is a useful book, a Federal judge has determined that this activity is not only permissible, but in the public interest.

The judge’s justification: the Fair Use doctrine that allows certain uses of copyrighted materials for the public interest. For more about that, be sure read part two (and part three).

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