The Google Library
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
Chicago , IL


In this digital age with lots of things brought to our finger-tips, we venture out less and less.
We don’t go to libraries as often as we used to, and in not too distant a future, we may not even have to go there at all, unless of course we really want to be in a place that used to be less dusty, less moldy.
Google and a few other well-known electronic databases have been busy scanning books --- not just a few thousand or a few hundred-thousand books, but every single page of every single book ever published anywhere in the world. That’ll be how many books? It’s a mind-boggling 32 million (and growing every minute), according to the WorldCat, based on a survey of 25,000 libraries around the world. And, how long will it take ? Google’s Marissa Mayer, who is in-charge of the project, recently said: “We think that we can do it all inside of ten years.” Nothing else would perhaps fit in better with the Google philosophy: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” On this effort, Jeffrey Toobin (a CNN legal analyst) has an interesting article in The New Yorker (February 2007 issue).
Starting collaborations with university libraries in 2002, first with the University of Michigan (the alma mater of a Google co-founder), Google promised them complete digitalization of their entire book collection, and offering each library a digital copy of each book, and free of charge. Considering tens of thousands of books from each of the many participating university or other libraries, are now being scanned page-by-page by specially designed scanners at many locations, every week for the past 5+ years already, the 10-year target doesn’t seem all that wild or impossible for Google.
Google doesn’t divulge the number of books it has already scanned, but a sizable fraction of it is now on-line (beta-version) at books.google. com, where, by searching a word or phrase in a book, you can get a glimpse of the shape of things to come.
Besides Google, a few others are also involved in similar ventures, for instance: Amazon.com (hundreds of thousands of books scanned); Carnegie-Mellon’s project Universal Library (nearly one-and-a-half million scanned); Open Content Alliance, a consortium funded largely by Microsoft and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and several other institutions (many thousands scanned). The main goal of every one of them is to see that the databases, a ‘universal digital library’, are easily accessible and ‘searchable’ to the users. How universal is this ‘Universal Library’?
Books in languages other than English, and their translations in English, pose a major problem. Google has many such books in its library, but right now they are searchable only in that language, with only a very limited preliminary translation capability.
Google doesn’t say how much the entire project would cost, but Microsoft did in 2005: copying 100,000 books from British Library would cost it about $2.5 million. At that rate, scanning the world collection of 32 million books would amount to about $800 million, which, spread over years, shouldn’t be too prohibitive for a company like Google that has had phenomenal success in less than 10 years of its establishment and whose two founders (in their thirties now) are already worth about $14 billion, each.
Then, however, there’s this other shoe to drop. On charges of potential copyright infringement, this Project is in legal fight with two groups in a New York federal court : Authors Guild and some Publishers (who, ironically are also Google’s partners in this very Project).
The issues are quite complex, and involve constitutional rights. The ‘Copyright Law’, in Article 1, US Constitution first passed in 1790, charges the Congress to enact laws “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The law has been amended several times since, most recently in 1998 when the time-period was extended to 20 years, and allows the public (scholars, teachers, journalists, writers, etc), under its ‘fair-use’ proviso to copy and quote (for personal and professional use) only portions of the copyright-protected books and other material. However, its fair application and protection of the copyright owners’ legitimate rights get murky in this electronic/digital age.
Only about 20% of all books are in ‘public domain’, i.e., have passed the copyright limits, and can thus be copied/scanned entirely, without any restriction. Another 10% are protected under copy-ight laws. The rest of the books are still protected but of uncertain status or out-of-print. And, it is this group that has presented most problems: Google is scanning each book in its entirety, without the publishers’ permission or compensating them for it: This, the publishers remind IS against the law, even if making only parts of them on its website available to the users is allowed under ‘fair use’. Without proper compensation for the use, the publishers also maintain that Google unlawfully profits, at the expense of the copyright-owners of the works involved.
Google, on the other hand, insists that its scanning of a copyright material is in fact “transformative,” which means that Google has made the book into a new product. Even though they in fact are illegally copying the entire book when they scan and digitize it, the digitized product, they say, is no longer a book. These fine-points are best left to the legal system.
Fearing legal complications, some libraries, notably Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, have restricted Google to those books that are in ‘public domain’ books, while some other public institutions (e.g., the Universities of Michigan, California, Virginia, and Texas at Austin) continue to allow Google (also their partner in the project) to scan the copyrighted material.
The publishers don’t quarrel with Google for trying to help them sell books (they know how ‘browse leads to buy’), but in their 2005 lawsuit they insist that copying the entire book, still under copyright protection, IS an infringement. Authors Guild, filing a suit around the same time, takes Google’s effort as a violation of authors’ rights.
People in the know think that some settlement will be reached before the trial, as it happens in most federal cases. That, of course, will be among the parties protecting their own interests. Hard to say, who is really concerned about the users or how will whatever comes out of it affect the users.
True, the significance of moving books from the enclaves of libraries to your laptop cannot be easily dismissed.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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