The Magazine

Google and Its Enemies

The much-hyped project to digitize 32 million books sounds like a good idea. Why are so many people taking shots at it?

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Nor is everyone pleased by the idea of Google's online library. Just three days after Google announced the project, the president of the American Library Association took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to proclaim the superior value of bricks-and-mortar libraries and caution against irrational Google exuberance: "This latest version of Google hype will no doubt join taking personal commuter helicopters to work and carrying the Library of Congress in a briefcase on microfilm as 'back to the future' failures, for the simple reason that they were solutions in search of a problem."

Competitors have also appeared. Amazon.com has scanned hundreds of thousands of books which can be accessed on the website and last month introduced its version of the ebook, called the "Kindle." As of now, it makes available 90,000 books for purchase and download. In 2005, Microsoft and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation formed the Open Content Alliance, in conjunction with such institutions as the Boston Public Library and Johns Hopkins University. Google's chief competitor in the search engine business, Yahoo!, provides web hosting for the OCA. The publisher HarperCollins announced that it would scan 20,000 of its titles and provide the texts to all search engines, gratis.

On a much grander scale, the governments of China and India joined with the Library of Alexandria and eight U.S. universities on a "Million Book Project." They are moving aggressively: China has 18 digitization centers up and running, India has 22. Part of this consortium, Carnegie Mellon's "Universal Library," already has about 500,000 books digitized.

In Europe, the reaction to Google was striking. Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, wrote an op-ed that became a book, Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. It principally attacked Google's library project as a piece of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. Jeanneney's book, which has been translated into several languages and sold briskly, is full of irritatingly French clichés. He laments the Monica Lewinsky affair and shakes his head in bewilderment at George W. Bush's reelection. At one point he worries that "English .  .  . if not contained, will become ever more dominant," because of projects such as Google Book Search. He did, however, prod some Europeans into taking Google seriously. The French Ministry of Culture has signed up some 30 libraries to its own digital library project. European governments are even contemplating the creation of a state-owned search engine--the embryonic project is called "Quaero"--with an eye toward competing with Google. The model Jeanneney cites for this endeavor is Airbus.

And then there are the lawsuits. The Google Library is composed of two different tracks, the "Partner Program" (originally called the "Publisher Program") and the "Library Project." Under the Partner Program, authors and publishers can volunteer their works for inclusion in the Google database. In return, they're given a portion of the revenue Google generates from ads that appear on pages featuring their books. A number of authors and major publishers have joined up, including Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and McGraw-Hill. Books scanned under the Partner Program will not give viewers access to the full text, but rather to a few pages on either side of the search result.

The legal problems lie with the Library Project. Copyright has its foundations in English law and the Licensing Act of 1662. The falling costs of printing had created rampant book piracy in England. Concerned that such behavior would blunt creativity and harm the book business, Charles II established a register of licensed books to protect authors and publishers. A hundred years later, the copyright was the only right the Founding Fathers gauged important enough to recognize explicitly in the Constitution itself. In the intervening years, it has evolved somewhat. Today, works published before 1923 are generally in the public domain. There are exceptions and complexities, but works published after 1978 are protected by copyright for 70 years from the author's death. As for works published between 1923 and 1978, they were given an original copyright protection of 28 years from first publication and another 67 years of protection upon renewal of the copyright. Got that?