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Google’s Goal: Digitize Every Book Ever Printed

December 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In a new era of E-books, Internet giant Google is attempting to offer millions of books online. Spencer Michels looks at the controversial plan and what it could mean for the future of reading.
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SPENCER MICHELS: Just before 9:00 most mornings, a truck belonging to Google pulls up at the Stanford University Library. It’s loaded with books that Google checked out and is now returning, after having scanned them so they can be read by a computer.

No overdue fines here. As soon as the truck is empty, library workers load it up again with more books to digitize, part of an ambitious program that so far has scanned 12 million books at many libraries. The goal is to scan up to 40 million.

That’s a tall order for Daniel Clancy, an engineer and the director of Google Books.

DANIEL CLANCY: Google said our mission is to organize all the world’s information.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says the primary purpose of all the digitizing is to makes books searchable.

DANIEL CLANCY: The repository of our cultural and societal and history is really embodied in books. But, when you search the Web, you’re not searching books. Many of these books were not — are not digitally available.

SPENCER MICHELS: Clancy showed me how books are now appearing ever more frequently on Google searches.

DANIEL CLANCY: Every time you search Google, you’re searching 12 million books. They were looking for this arcane — it’s called “Court of Admiralty.” So, this is a very obscure, you know, long tail query that this person was looking for something, OK?

And now, when you click through, you see this book, that what you’re seeing up here is actually a public domain book that we currently let this user see the entire book of. And then he can also download a copy of the book. And it’s free.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Michigan have signed agreements with Google authorizing the firm to scan their books.

Michael Keller, the Stanford librarian, says it’s a valuable program.

MICHAEL KELLER: The indexing of every word in every one of the books would allow us to get more out of the books. Another goal was to make more accessible the contents of these libraries to others around the United States and indeed around the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: While Stanford digitizes some books on its own for special projects using a fairly slow and complicated Swiss-made scanner, Google uses its own proprietary system, which it wouldn’t allow us to film.

The Google project has provoked loud criticism among some academics, authors and rival high-tech companies, some of whom have sued to halt or at least modify it.

Gary Reback is a Silicon Valley attorney who represents the Open Book Alliance, whose members include Microsoft and Amazon.com. He predicts that Google will start without charging for what it digitizes, but eventually will impose hefty fees.

GARY REBACK, attorney, Open Book Alliance: What Google is proposing here is not like any library you have ever been to. It’s not a public library. It’s a private library. And it’s being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even schoolchildren, to get access to books that Google copied without the permission of the publisher or the author.

SPENCER MICHELS: Current books whose copyrights are intact and the copyright holders are known are not in dispute. Publishers must give their permission for those books, or portions of them, to be put online.

Books in the public domain, whose copyrights have expired, are fair game for any digitizer, and, currently, you can download many of them for free.

The problems arise over so-called orphan books, out of print, but still in copyright, where the current holder of that copyright is unknown. While there are a lot of them, they don’t get read very often.

MICHAEL KELLER: What happens when you digitize these books and make them accessible on the Net is that they get a lot more use. People can find the stuff, 10 times more use than formerly was recorded.

SPENCER MICHELS: Selling digital copies of those books then could become profitable, and the fight is over who gets the money. But Google insists its plans and its investment, which it won’t disclose, are not based on profits.

DANIEL CLANCY: Google hopes to benefit from it by improving our search. And we expect that we will make some money as we sell the books. But the motivation is not the money we’re going to make from selling books, because, if you look at what we’re investing, it’s far greater than that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Attorney Reback doesn’t buy that at all. He says, Google reached a tentative exclusive settlement with authors and publishers, giving them part of the profits, that gives Google a lucrative monopoly.

GARY REBACK: The problem is, the way Google has gone about this, to make themselves the exclusive supplier. We have proposed that we take Google’s set of digital copies and we have them licensed to four or five other companies. And that would mean that there would be competition.

SPENCER MICHELS: Google’s alleged monopoly also disturbs Pam Samuelson, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who teaches copyright law. She contends that the agreement reached last October between Google and publishers and authors doesn’t protect the public or universities who use those books.

PAM SAMUELSON, professor, University of California-Berkeley: There really are not checks and balances in the agreement about — about pricing strategies. And it seems like, the more books that Google scans, the higher the prices can be. The entire thing transformed itself into a commercial enterprise. It’s basically turned this project into a bookstore, rather than a library.

SPENCER MICHELS: Google argues it has no monopoly. It welcomes competition. Microsoft, Amazon and others could be doing the same thing, but have decided not to.

DANIEL CLANCY: Microsoft used to have an initiative, and they decided not to continue pursuing it. There’s nothing we’re doing that prevents anyone from doing the exact same thing. And the one thing that I strongly think is the wrong answer is that we should, you know, lock all this stuff up, so that nobody can discover them and nobody can — can use these books.

SPENCER MICHELS: Google’s insistence it is acting altruistically, its reliance on its do-no-evil motto, drew scoffs from attorney Reback.

GARY REBACK: People no longer see any big difference between Google and Google’s competitors. They’re in it for money. And we need to depend on the competitive system to protect us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Does that go for Amazon and Microsoft as well?

GARY REBACK: It absolutely does. In this case, for example, Amazon was digitizing books long before Google was. Microsoft wanted to digitize books. Neither of them got the same deal that Google got — got secretly, but, if they had, we would be — all be better off because of it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Questions like those are being debated around the world. At Stanford, top librarians met recently to wrestle with how to adapt to the new online book resources and whether to cooperate with digitizations of their collections.

And bookstores like Berkeley’s Pegasus, already in competition with discount booksellers, have to adapt as well. This store now sells digital books through its Web site. Besides the competition from online books, store owner Amy Thomas also worries about privacy of digital book buyers.

AMY THOMAS: They have a right to read without being — having their reading records subpoenaed for whatever reason. They have a right to this privacy. And we will hope that Google will maintain, zealously maintain, defend those rights.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pam Samuelson is equally skeptical of Google’s privacy policies. She puts her trust in libraries.

For its part, Google says it has been a huge advocate for user privacy. Antitrust concerns, copyright law, competition and privacy are all at issue in a flurry of lawsuits, friend-of-the-court briefs and interest from the Department of Justice. They will come to a head in February, when a federal judge holds a hearing on the Google case in New York.