Google's Not-So-Simple Side

February 27, 2006

Google’s quest to “organize the world’s information” is supposed to make life easier.  But the issues surrounding the company’s book search program have complicated many academics' views of copyright, because they involve many nuances surrounding security, infrastructure and compensation.

While the project, which is currently released online in beta version, is dividing academe, some professors are trying to find common ground. On Friday, the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies hosted a lively discussion on Google’s process for implementing the controversial program.

In December 2004, the company reached an agreement with Harvard and Stanford Universities, the Universities of Michigan and Oxford, and the New York Public Library to digitally scan millions of their books, including many that are copyrighted. Ever since the plans were unfurled, many publishers have been angry, with some arguing that the federal copyright laws do not allow for such digitization. 

In August 2005, the company made a move to pacify publishers, by saying it wouldn’t scan copyrighted books until 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.” In September, the Authors Guild filed a class action against the company, saying that only copyright holders should have the right to decide how their works are copied.

Google has since gone forward with its plans and many books -- and portions of books -- are now just a few mouse clicks away.

At Friday's event, Hal R. Varian, a professor of economics and founding dean of the School of Information Management Systems at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the Google project is fulfilling an important service by helping people find texts, oftentimes those that have been out of print for decades. Varian noted that he has previously consulted for the company on issues he said were unrelated to the book search program.

Doug G. Lichtman, a law professor at the University of Chicago, while agreeing that the program is technologically “amazing,” said that Google unfairly puts a burden on copyright holders by forcing them to have to contact the company to “opt out” if they do not want their books included in the search database. “We’ve got to draw some careful lines,” he said, arguing that the company “shouldn’t get everything in its interest.” He also asked why the onus should fall on authors or publishers to “opt out” to make sure that Google’s search system isn’t allowing third parties to unlawfully use their works.

Google does make limited parts of copyrighted texts available online unless an author or publisher contacts the company to pull the book from its searchable list. Google searchers can also see a “sample pages view” if an author or publisher has given the company permission, or a “full book view” if the book is out of copyright. In all cases, notes Google, one sees a “buy this book” link on the screen next to the book search results, which points readers to online bookstores.

One audience member, who works in the file-sharing technology field, said that it would be relatively easy for a company like his to quickly piece together snippets of the books until entire chapters or texts were available online.  

Lichtman said that Google has done a poor job at thinking through such “security” issues. He also said that radio stations have developed an effective infrastructure for asking artists and recording companies for permission to play their songs, and he said that a clearinghouse should be created that would put the onus on Google and any other Web-based company to ask permission before displaying any portions of books.

Varian said that it would be costly for Google to have to find every copyright holder, and said that it “would be crazy” if Google had to ask every Web site for permission to include its information in the search engine. Google is “helping people to find works,” he said. At the same time, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the company supported a “rights clearinghouse” system in the future.

Lichtman responded that Google needs to be part of a clearinghouse solution “right now,” before publishers and authors lose money due to copyright and security issues.

Edward Timberlake, who said he works at the U.S. Copyright Office, noted that after Google scans a portion of a book from one of the libraries it has teamed with, an electronic version of the work is provided back to the institution. “What’s happening with that copy?” Timberlake asked. He said that the libraries are doing “a lot of stuff” with those electronic versions that authors and publishers don’t believe they have permission to do. He said it would be interesting to see whether that issue comes to be argued in court.

“Librarians doing something illegal with their copies is wrong,” said Varian. But he argued that the fault would lie with the individual library involved, not with Google.

Both Lichtman and Varian agreed that the Google book program could bring about huge benefits for society, but that new technology often brings about new challenges when it comes to copyright law.

Near the conclusion of the discussion, a reporter asked Robert W. Hahn, executive director of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, whether the organization sought permission from copyright holders to use Google’s logo and cartoon images of books and a computer screen on a Power Point presentation that was prepared as a backdrop for the session.

“I’ll withhold my response,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

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