Information Update - Spring 2010
Google Books Revolutionizes Research
- Google Book Search, the most ambitious project undertaken by a dot.com company in the brief history of this fledgling industry, promises to open the research libraries of the world to scholars and laymen alike, allowing access to previously unattainable works that reside in the stacks and archives in many of the world's most prestigious research collections. The project involves two facets. The first facet is books that are in copyright which are indexed and digitized by a current publisher; these allow the reader to access a preview or partial view (no more than twenty percent) and can be purchased through that publisher or a third party vendor, such as Amazon. Facet number two is much more controversial and is the crux of a 2005 lawsuit filed against Google. In this phase, an initial agreement was struck with five large research libraries (U of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the New York Public Library) to scan their collections in return for a digital copy of each work. It insures that if theft, fire, flood, or other natural disaster befall any of these collections, a copy is available, be it not in its original form, but attainable nonetheless. The project involves both a small portion of copyrighted and all non-copyrighted works in each library's individual collections and will ultimately cost the company over 200 million dollars. It also means that each work's title and subjects will be completely searchable and, depending on the source of the material, fully accessible for view. Carefully targeted advertisements would be placed on Google's search pages as a way to recoup the amount of labor involved in the project. Publishers will receive revenue from contextually targeted ads placed with their permission, thus increasing the profit margin for them, not only for the purchase of a book, but for additional product or titles they might wish to promote.
Why or why not is this monumental project important to readers and researchers in 21st Century America? Why do some proponents of this daunting task call it a digital version of the ancient Library at Alexandria? Why do some publishers and booksellers worldwide fear that a monopoly unlike any in U.S. history will be permitted to flourish? And why do some fear an invasion of privacy and that ultimately access to information would be threatened in this digital world? The answers to these questions are complex and are not as yet resolved, owing to the 2005 federal lawsuit, filed by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers against Google. A settlement came late in 2009, the details of which are still being hammered out by all interested parties. A preliminary scan of the compromise focuses on a category of books that falls somewhere between the pre-1923 copyright cutoff and currently available books that are directly affiliated with a publisher and author (in copyright). This category, orphan books, is, according to a recent Carnegie Mellon study, approximately 21 percent of all books that have been scanned so far. These titles consist of books that have unreachable authors and/or defunct publishers, thus preventing direct contact for securing of the copyright to the work. The new revision of the agreement calls for the establishment of an independent trustee or fiduciary which will administer a reasonable default and pricing schema for books relegated to the orphan category. The fiduciary will accumulate revenue for the rights holders, giving them an incentive to step forward.
Concern over the tracking of who is reading what via the Google Book Search is very real, since the tracking of computer websites is more viable than access to print library records, which are currently protected by state and federal law. Google has assured their critics that they will indeed uphold the privacy of the reader and is spending time and money on constructing an encryption system to eliminate this fear. Web developers who fear the monopoly mentioned above are convinced that once Google completes its initial digitization, because they are the "proprietors" of the materials, they will immediately set about gouging the public for the right to access the titles in their collection. Once again, the management of Google assures their critics that although they will hold the digital copies, their goal is simply to assure the world that there is one safe copy - which will be accessible to all at a minimal and reasonable cost, and that no price gouging will ever take place. On the down side, during the long and drawn out legal proceedings, numerous European and Canadian libraries and publishers have withdrawn from the Google initial agreement. Their participation is still tenuous and will be resolved in a case by case or country by country process.
As of January 2010, the Google Book Search project is very much alive and well. Novice and experienced searchers alike are constantly surprised at the incredible amount of information that is available full text. Whole areas of previously unavailable knowledge are now accessible through the search engine's portal.
As the results of the compromise legal settlement become public, it will be more transparent as to how the whole copyright and privacy issues will be resolved, but it the hope of all who fight for access to information, that Google continue to act as the purveyor of previously unavailable knowledge in a responsible way.