Google's Digital Library Initiative

Posted on 10/28/2005 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



October 28, 2005

    On October 22, 2005 the Washington Post printed two editorials discussing the pros and cons of the Google Digital Library initiative. While the articles focus on the use of text, Google's Digital Library certainly has implications for photographs as well.

    Speaking for those in favor is Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan. Her library is one of five that have partnered with Google on its digitization project. Speaking for copyright protection is Nick Taylor, an author of nonfiction books and President of the Authors Guild headquartered in New York.

Riches We Must Share . . .

By: Mary Sue Coleman

Some authors and publishers have cried foul regarding Google's digital library initiative, sparking debate about intellectual property rights in an online age. Beyond the specific legal challenges emerging in the wake of such a sea change, there are deeply important public policy issues at stake. We must not lose sight of the transformative nature of Google's plan or the public good that can come from it.

Throughout history, most of the world's printed knowledge has been created, preserved and used only by society's elites -- those for whom education and power meant access to the great research libraries. Now, groundbreaking tools for mass digitization are poised to change that paradigm. We believe the result can be a widening of human conversation comparable to the emergence of mass literacy itself.

Google plans to make its index searchable to every person in the world who enjoys access to the Internet. For those works that remain in copyright, a search will reveal brief excerpts along with information about how to buy the work or borrow it from a public library. Searches of work in the public domain will yield access to complete texts online.

Imagine what this means for scholars and the general public, who, until now, might have discovered only a fraction of the material written on a subject. Or picture a small, impoverished school -- in America or anywhere in the world -- that does not have access to a substantial library but does have an Internet connection.

This enormous shift is already upon us. Students coming to my campus today belong to the Net Generation. By the time they were in middle school, the Internet was a part of their daily lives. As we watch the way our students search for and use information, this much is clear: If information is not digitized, it will not be found.

Libraries and educational institutions are the only entities whose mission is to preserve knowledge through the centuries. It is a crucial role, one outside the interest of corporate entities and separate from the whims of the market. If libraries do not archive and curate, there is substantial risk that entire bodies of work will be lost.

Universities and the knowledge they offer should be accessible by all.

We must continue to ensure access to the vast intellectual opportunity and knowledge we generate and preserve. The digitization of information is a profound gesture that holds open our doors. Limiting access to information is tantamount to limiting the opportunities of our citizens.

Criticism of the Google library project revolves around questions of intellectual property. Universities are no strangers to the responsible management of complex copyright, permission and security issues; we deal with them every day in our classrooms, libraries, laboratories and performance halls. We will continue to work within the current criteria for fair use as we move ahead with digitization.

But we believe deeply that this endeavor exemplifies the spirit under which our nation's copyright law was developed: to encourage the free exchange of ideas in the service of innovation and societal progress. The protections of copyright are designed to balance the rights of the creator with the rights of the public. At its core is the most important principle of all: to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, not to stifle such exchange.

No one believed more fervently in the diffusion of knowledge than Thomas Jefferson, who resurrected the Library of Congress, using his own books, after its predecessor was destroyed by fire. We must continue to heed his message:

"And it cannot be but that each generation succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it, adding to it their own acquisitions and discoveries, and handing the mass down for successive and constant accumulation, must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind, not infinitely, as some have said, but indefinitely, and to a term which no one can fix and foresee."

I worry that we are unnecessarily fearful of a world where our libraries can be widely accessed and that our fear will strangle the exchange of ideas so critical to our Founders. As these technologies are developed, our policies must help ensure that people can find information and that printed works are preserved for future generations.

. . . But Not at Writers' Expense

By: Nick Taylor

I am a writer.

For some time now -- too much time, I suspect my editor believes -- I have been working on a history of the Works Progress Administration. This has taken me to states from Maine to California, into archives and libraries, and on long and occasionally fruitful searches for survivors of the Depression-era program.

I have invested a small fortune in books chronicling the period and copies of old newspapers, spent countless hours on Internet searches, paid assistants to dig up obscure bits of information, and then sat at my keyboard trying to spin a mountain of facts into a compelling narrative. Money advanced by my publisher has made this possible.

Except for a few big-name authors, publishers roll the dice and hope that a book's sales will return their investment. Because of this, readers have a wealth of wonderful books to choose from. Most authors do not live high on their advances; my hourly return at this point is laughable.

Only if my book sells well enough to earn back its advance will I make additional money, but the law of copyright assures me of ongoing ownership. With luck, income will flow to my publisher and me for a long time, but if my publisher loses interest, I will still own my book and be able to make money from it.

So my question is this: When did we in this country decide that this kind of work and investment isn't worth paying for?

That is what Google, the powerful and extremely wealthy search engine, with co-founders ranking among the 20 richest people in the world, is saying by declining to license in-copyright works in its library scanning program, which has the otherwise admirable aim of making the world's books available for search by anyone with Web access.

Google says writers and publishers should be happy about this: It will increase their exposure and maybe lead to more book sales.

That's a devil's bargain.

We'd all like to have more exposure, obviously. But is that the only form of compensation Google can come up with when it makes huge profits on the ads it sells along the channels its users are compelled to navigate?

Now that the Authors Guild has objected, in the form of a lawsuit, to Google's appropriation of our books, we're getting heat for standing in the way of progress, again for thoughtlessly wanting to be paid. It's been tradition in this country to believe in property rights. When did we decide that socialism was the way to run the Internet?

The New York Public Library and Oxford University's Bodleian Library, two of the five libraries in the Google program, have recognized the problem. They are limiting the books scanned from their collections to those in the public domain, on which copyright protections have expired.

That is not the case with the others -- the libraries of the University of Michigan, Harvard and Stanford. Michigan's librarian believes that the authors' insistence on their rights amounts to speed bumps in the road of progress. "We cannot lose sight of the tremendous benefits this project will bring to society," he said in a news release.

In other words, traffic is moving too slowly, so let's remove the stop signs.

Google contends that the portions of books it will make available to searchers amount to "fair use," the provision under copyright that allows limited use of protected works without seeking permission. That makes a private company, which is profiting from the access it provides, the arbiter of a legal concept it has no right to interpret. And they're scanning the entire books, with who knows what result in the future.

There is no argument about the ultimate purpose of Google's initiative. Great value lies in a searchable, online "library at Alexandria" containing all the world's books, at least to that fraction of society that has computers, the electricity to run them and Internet connections. It would make human knowledge available on an unprecedented scale. But it must be done correctly, by acquiring the rights to the resources it wishes to exploit.

The value of Google's project notwithstanding, society has traditionally seen its greatest value in the rights of individuals, and particularly in the dignity of their work and just compensation for it.

The people who cry that information wants to be free don't address this dignity or this aspect of justice. They're more interested in ease of assembly. The alphabet ought to be free, most certainly, but the people who painstakingly arrange it into books deserve to be paid for their work. This, at the core, is what copyright is all about. It's about a just return for work and the dignity that goes with it.

Copyright © 2005 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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