Google has made relatively few missteps during its phenomenally successful corporate life so far -- and its officials probably wouldn't characterize its announcement Friday that way. But on Friday, Google slightly altered its much-criticized plan to start digitally scanning copyrighted books as part of its Google Print for Libraries Project -- though the shift did not come close to satisfying the publishing industry.
Last December, Google announced that it had reached agreement with several leading libraries -- those at Harvard and Stanford Universities, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Oxford, plus the New York Public Library -- to digitally scan millions of their books, including many that are copyrighted.
Publishing groups, including the American Association of University Presses and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, challenged Google's assertion that the "fair use" doctrine of federal copyright laws allowed for such digitization, and urged the company to reconsider its approach.
"The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers calls on Google to cease unlicensed digitisation 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 for ‘Google Print for Libraries,’ " Sally Morris, chief executive of the learned societies' publishers' association said in a statement in July. "We cannot believe that a business which prides itself on its cooperation with publishers could seriously wish to build part of its business on a basis of copyrightinfringement."
Despite those complaints, Google had been holding its ground in recent months. But Friday, in an announcement made quietly on its corporate Google Blog, the company said that it "won't scan any in-copyright books from now until this November," to give "any and all copyright holders" time to tell Google "which books they’d prefer that we not scan if we find them in a library."
The statement added: "We're going to continue talking about Google Print with our partners and the publishing industry. These discussions have been crucial in helping to build a program that benefits the industry and, most important, the millions of users who'll be able to discover new books. Stay tuned."
Publishing groups said that they welcomed the concession but that it did not go far enough. "Google's announcement does nothing to relieve the publishing industry's concerns," said Patricia Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. "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."
Librarians and other observers of the Google project said they were heartened by the company's concession on timing but unsure whether the delay would be enough to allow it and the publishers to find common ground. The announcement shows Google is "interested in trying to come to terms with the publishers," Steven J. Bell, director of the Paul J. Gutman Library at Philadelphia University, who maintains a leading blog for librarians, said in an e-mail.
"Right now it looks like the publishers still want more concessions from Google, as well as more information about the project," Bell added. "I don't think this will be totally resolved by November, but I do believe the project will continue on, and that Google will forge ahead even if it doesn't work out an ideal plan with the publishers."