Spencer Michels: A Little Common Sense About Google Books

BY Spencer Michels  December 30, 2009 at 6:36 PM EDT

The Google books story sounds pretty simple on the surface: Google wants to digitize or scan a large portion of the world’s books, and then make them available for people searching a subject. That part is fairly straight forward. After that, it gets more complicated.

Most new books these days are composed on a computer, and are easily made digital. If authors don’t want something put online, they can stop it — it’s a clear violation of copyright. When you purchase and download a digital book to read on your Kindle or other device, the author and publisher are getting some of the profits.

But for out-of-print books where the copyright is still in force, but the owner hard to find, the situation is more difficult. Those are called “orphan books.” Google wants to digitize them, and make their contents available through search – just like they were portions of reports or speeches or press releases or magazine articles. You won’t get the whole book, but relevant portions – a few pages, perhaps.

You wouldn’t think that such out-of-print books would cause a stir. But there are many of them in libraries and used book stores, and IF they were easily available online, more people, especially scholars, might use them. So they are potentially valuable since a much larger group of consumers could have access to them. Stanford’s librarian estimates perhaps 10 times as many people would use them, and therefore they could bring in revenue – perhaps a lot of money, over time. And that’s the big problem. Other companies would like to have part of that action, or at least keep Google from having a monopoly on it. They and their lawyers, plus some academics and some authors, claim that Google is digitizing those books without permission (since the copyright holders are hard to find), and intends eventually to go beyond search, and actually sell the books online. And while an agreement with authors’ and publishers’ groups guarantees that Google will share part of the profits, there are some people who say Google has stacked the deck. They argue that by getting access to big university libraries like Stanford, University of California at Berkeley and University of Michigan, Google has made competition impossible. They say Google will be able to charge what it wants for access to its digital library. The libraries say others can digitize the books if they want, but it’s a big, expensive project, and so far no one else has applied to do it on the scale of a Google. So the rivals want Google to share or license the digitized books, or have the university libraries do the digitizing. Some think Congress needs to step in and help settle the dispute. Meanwhile, Google says it’s doing important work, and claims it is not concerned about big profits. The company contends that the objectors just want to clamp down on Google because it’s Google. The dispute goes to federal court in February -for another settlement conference to refine the agreement. I’ll have more on Wednesday night’s NewsHour about the dispute and how is it growing, as academicians, librarians, bookstore owners and big firms like Amazon.com and Microsoft get involved. I talked with Google Books director Dan Clancy, and to Open Book Alliance attorney Gary Reback, as well as University of California law school professor Pam Samuelson, and Stanford University’s librarian Michael Keller. I hope you tune in.