Thursday, October 30, 2008

Library Bytes: Google Books

More than once, I have felt the pull in two directions in the debate between those interested in protecting works of art and literature through copyright (e.g., authors) versus allowing free access to all information (e.g., libraries). There is a lot at stake in this debate both for creators and the public, and I can see both sides of the argument. Those who create should be able to protect their works for a limited period of time, but we also should be able to bring freely as much information as possible to the masses. For the past couple of years Google has been involved in a book-scanning project as part of their global ideal of digitizing everything in the world and making it freely available over the Internet. They have been working with major libraries to scan books in their collections and allow people to search them on their Google Books website. The idea isn't new. Companies like netLibrary started something comparable to this nearly ten years ago, but they were charging libraries subscription costs for their patrons to read the electronic books. While Google's book-scanning project works beautifully for those who are researchers and do not necessarily need to read every book cover-to-cover for specific projects (but can if they wish), the fact remains that Google has not restricted itself to scanning books in the public domain. They have been scanning books still protected by copyright and in some cases still in print. As a result, two class-action lawsuits were filed against the company by authors and publishers to protect their interests in Google's project. Google claims that what is it doing is an extension of fair use. The authors and publishers argue otherwise, that Google has not asked for their permission and that this free distribution impinges on their attempts to earn a profit. As it turns out, this week Google has settled, agreeing to pay out $125 million in compensation, although they are denying any wrong-doing in the suit. There are other stipulations, all of which you can read about in an article from Wednesday's New York Times, "Google Settles Suit Over Book-Scanning," but take a look also at Google's own webpage about the settlement and how it will alter their service: Google Book Search Settlement Agreement. Personally, I think Google Books is a fantastic tool. I've used it on more than one occasion in my research, because the scanned books are fully searchable by keyword, which means you can look for references in books to people, places, and events you might not ever think to look in. For my own research in nineteenth-century art and culture, this has been extremely useful, because many of the books published during that century are difficult to find or are too fragile to hold. Contrary to what the lawsuit argued, it has inspired me at times to seek out the purchasing of these books if possible. (After all, the actual reading of electronic books is an unpleasant task. For me, reading a book entails the experience of actually holding a book, and I never want to give that up.) On the other hand, I'm also pleased that there is going to be a curtailing of the free electronic delivery of works protected by copyright. Authors do have the right to protect their own work, at least for a time-limited period. It seems then that the middle road is the most viable for all those involved in this debate.

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