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Google Pauses

An undertaking greeted by Harvard librarians as potentially “a revolutionary new information-location tool” and “an important public good” is on hold, in part, until November 1 at least and has also become the subject of litigation.

Google announced last December that it had reached agreement with Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Oxford, and the New York Public Library to create an on-line reading room — to add to its database, at its expense, digital, searchable copies of millions of books in those libraries (see “Harvard’s Googled Library,” March-April, page 71).

Although some of Google’s library partners were prepared to go full speed ahead, Harvard entered only into a pilot project in which Google would digitize 40,000 books at the Harvard Depository in Southborough, Massachusetts. If the pilot went well, Google would go on to digitize all of the University’s 15 million books. Google staff began work in Southborough in January.

Harvard chose to proceed cautiously for several reasons, as reported here earlier; librarians wanted to be sure Google wouldn’t damage books, for instance. Another reason given by director of the University Library Sidney Verba was that “the laws that apply to digitized books still under copyright are uncertain and changing, and even though many publishers have already entered into agreements with Google about how their books may be used, it is not certain that the grand plan won’t be challenged.”

It was. The plan for the Google Print Library envisioned that Internet users would be able to browse or print out the entirety of books in the public domain, but books still under copyright could be accessed only in snippets. Should a copyrighted book still be in print, Google would tell users where they could buy it.

But publishing groups challenged Google’s position that the fair-use doctrine of copyright law allows for digitization of entire works. “The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers calls on Google to cease unlicensed digitization of copyright materials with immediate effect, and to enter into urgent discussions with representatives of the publishing industry in order to arrive at an appropriate licensing solution…,” Sally Morris, chief executive of that association, said in a July statement.

Google held its ground until August 12, when it announced that it would halt the scanning of copyrighted works until November 1 to give publishers and other copyright holders the chance to tell Google which of their works they do not want included in its database.

“Google’s announcement does nothing to relieve the publishing industry’s concerns,” Patricia Schroeder, J.D. ’64, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, told the press. “Google’s procedure shifts the responsibility for preventing infringement to the copyright owner rather than the user, turning every principle of copyright law on its ear.”

Although publishers naturally are in favor of encouraging sales of their books, said Schroeder, some are concerned that Google may sell advertising relating to the results of searches of copyrighted material without sharing this revenue with the copyright owners.

On September 20 three authors filed suit against Google and this project in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that it constituted “massive copyright infringement.” They were joined as a coplaintiff by the Authors Guild, a trade group that says it represents 8,000 published authors. The plaintiffs seek class-action status, ask for damages, and demand an injunction to halt further infringements.

“As both an author and publisher, I find the Guild’s position to be exactly backward,” wrote Tim O’Reilly ’76 in a September 28 op-ed piece in the New York Times. A publisher of computer books, O’Reilly is a member of Google’s publisher advisory board for this project, which, he writes, “promises to be a boon to authors, publishers and readers if Google sticks to its stated goal of creating a tool that helps people discover (and potentially pay for) copyright works.”

Meanwhile, Harvard’s pilot project moves ahead, but Google’s people in Southborough are scanning only those books that are in the public domain. The University Library’s Sidney Verba was quoted by the Chicago Tribune in September as hoping that the two cultures in play in this matter will come together and that Google will eventually scan Harvard’s in-copyright books. “Everyone I know who thinks Google is the end of Western civilization,” says Verba, “uses it when they want to write something about Western civilization.”