Who Should Control The Virtual Library?

Jessica Vascellaro, staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal
Fred Von Lohmann, staff attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Daphne Keller, managing product counsel for Google Books

Google stands to be the single repository for millions of the world's books. Advocates applaud the organization and the access a digital library can afford. But critics worry about monopoly and profit motives, and what it means for readers' privacy.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Before Gutenberg, books were precious commodities, literacy was equally rare, and the flow of ideas scarcely amounted to a trickle. Movable type made printing easy and cheap. All kinds of books became available to a much wider audience, and the world changed. We may be at such a moment right now. Millions of books are being scanned into digital libraries that should make enormous volumes of material available to anybody. And this time, the agent of change isn't Gutenberg but Google. How all this will happen is important and the subject of argument among writers' groups, publishers, libraries and privacy advocates, but that it will happen seems beyond dispute.

Writers, librarians, how will that change the world this time? What does it mean for you? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, that full-of-herself college girl from "A Different World" joins us, actor, director, writer Jasmine Guy, but first, Google's digital library. And we begin with Jessica Vascellaro, who covers Internet companies for the Wall Street Journal. She joins us from our member station in San Francisco, KQED, and it's nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JESSICA VASCELLARO (Staff Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And the legal issues here are significant, and we'll get to those in a minute, but does anybody doubt the Internet will eventually house all or virtually all of the books ever printed?

Ms. VASCELLARO: Well, I think there's no doubt that books are going online, just the way music and other media have. But I think, you know, we don't - we're seeing how that will play out and who will control that, and you know, I think libraries and bookstores are going to be around, but clearly people are spending more time on the Internet. There are so many benefits to accessing all these works over the Internet. Books are going online.

CONAN: And what does all this massive digitizing mean for you and me?

Ms. VASCELLARO: Well, I think it means we're going to be able to find a variety of books that, you know, we couldn't track down at the local book store or the library by just going on the Web. It could also mean that books become cheaper because they're easier to access. This is all playing out. We don't know how - what these services will look like at the moment. But you know, the benefits that Google and others talk about are greater distribution and lower cost.

CONAN: And how all of this is going to work out is being worked on in part by a federal judge. This case is in court, to nobody's great surprise, but for those of us who are not copyright lawyers, what is going on here?

Ms. VASCELLARO: Well, last October, Google, which was sued by authors and publishers for scanning books off library shelves, reached a settlement with those authors and publishers. And that deal last October said that Google could get the rights to all the books they scanned off library shelves, which are largely out-of-print books, and that Google could create new services to distribute these books, sell these books, sell advertising against these books and then share back the revenue it earned with authors and publishers.

So that settlement was announced between the parties, but it's going before a judge in federal court in New York that has to review it, that basically has to approve it, and what we've seen over the past couple of months is a wide variety of criticism of the settlement. Companies that are competitors to Google were raising concerns, privacy advocates, copyright lawyers - everyone now has weighed in with the court, raised some objections - there are a number of supporters, as well. And now it's all before the judge, which, sometime in October, is going to hold a hearing and decide whether to approve the settlement or not.

CONAN: And likely not to be quite resolved in that one hearing, if experience with the courts is any experience, but I guess eventually it will be settled by the federal courts. And given - if this settlement is eventually given the green light, what is that going to mean? Obviously, it depends on what kind of settlement is agreed to, but what is it going to mean for Google and its competitors?

Ms. VASCELLARO: Well, it will mean that Google will have the rights to distribute these out-of-print books and to create a new service where consumers could access them online. They could presumably access them from their mobile phones. Authors and publishers could opt out of having their information or their works included. But if Google has its way, it will build that service.

Of course, other companies - and Amazon is the big one - are trying to also do a similar thing to increase access to all these books. So, you know, if it goes forward, Google will have a big head start, but I think it's safe to assume that other competitors are going to continue to try and build similar products.

CONAN: We want to hear today from librarians, from writers, from booksellers. How is this going to change the world? What is it going to mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Katrina(ph), and she's calling from Richmond, Virginia.

KATRINA (Caller): Hi.


KATRINA: Well, I'm really happy about this. My - the book that we got contacted about was my grandfather's book, who - he was a substance abuse medicine physician, and he wrote a book for the general public on alcoholism in the '70s. And he wrote about alcoholism as a disease, not as a weakness or a personality trait, and that was really important at the time. And we got a letter from Google saying that - well, talking about this whole settlement and asking us how we wanted to treat it. And I was really impressed. I think it's great that people would have access to my grandfather's book. I think it's a great book. I think he did great work, and…

CONAN: So you see this as giving your grandfather's book new life and, indeed, virtual immortality.


CONAN: Yeah, and Jessica Vascellaro, that's one thing this would accomplish.

Ms. VASCELLARO: Definitely. And there's no question that there are tons of works out there that will find new audiences if this goes through. And I think a lot of the criticism is, you know, it's very specific, and it's focused on, in part, works maybe where the rights holders aren't known. So someone, you know, like the caller wouldn't have been contacted, wouldn't have the chance to participate in the benefits from having their family's works shared. And these works, which are also covered in the settlement - so books Google scanned where people don't know the rights holders, that's a pretty controversial part of the settlement, but it's also a very small part of the settlement. And clearly there are tons of benefits that people would see if it went through.

CONAN: And Katrina, what's the name of your grandfather's book?

KATRINA: Alcoholism as - I don't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm sure we could look it up.

KATRINA: I'm really sorry.

CONAN: That's okay.

KATRINA: But I think it's really important to mention that I really like the fact that Google has given us a choice in how we wanted to receive benefits, and we actually don't want to receive any benefits. We think it's better just to get this out.

CONAN: Your grandfather might have felt the same way, but I know an awful lot of writers whose first question about this is where's my check?

KATRINA: Exactly, but this is a book from 70 years ago, and he died a long time ago - I mean a book from the '70s, and he was an academic. And we're a family of academics, and we're more interested in getting information out and accessible. And that's not to say that we don't want other people to get paid and to get paid in a proper way, it's just that this is our personal choice. And it's great that we're being offered a choice.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Katrina, good luck with the book.

KATRINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now is Fred Von Lohmann. He's a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. He's also there at the studios of KQED. He's the man who's been coughing in the background. And nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. FRED VON LOHMANN (Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Thanks for having me. Sorry about my little cough.

CONAN: Oh, that's quite all right. I was just trying to identify that sound for the people. I think overall, you think it's a good thing that people will have online access to all of these books that are previously unavailable, unless you were willing to travel to libraries all around the country, indeed all around the world, but I know you also have some concerns. What are they?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, we, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation along with the ACLU, have a real set of concerns around read privacy. But a lot of the other folks who have been filing objections in court, their chief concerns have revolved around questions of competition and worries that Google here might have the beginnings of what could be a new online monopoly.

CONAN: That Google, having already scanned, as I understand it, 10 million books, is so far ahead of the game, nobody would be able to compete with them.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, there's something more than just that. Obviously, that first mover advantage can make a big difference, but here there's something more. And it comes out of this proposed settlement. The way the settlement works, Google will have the ability to scan all the in-copyright books, subject to authors opting out and things like that. But the real key here is in those older books, those out-of-print books because for a lot of those books, the author can't be found at all. That's what we copyright lawyers call orphan works…

CONAN : Mm-hmm.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: …books whose authors and copyright owners literally can't be found, and so Google, thanks to the settlement, will have the ability to scan and use all of the books, whereas a competitor like Microsoft or Amazon or even a nonprofit like the Internet Archive, if they came into this, they wouldn't be able to scan those out-of-print, unfindable books because they wouldn't have the rights to them. So the worry is that Google here will get a monopoly on these so-called orphan books.

CONAN: And in terms of the privacy issues, if it's online, I gather that it's possible to then know who has visited what book and what they've been reading.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: That's absolutely right, and that's where EFF and the ACLU are chiefly concerned. Unlike a bookstore or even a library, because these books will live online on Google's computers, where you will be accessing them, Google will have the ability to watch every page you read, how long you spend on any particular page, what page you read a minute ago and what page you're going to read a week from now. It really is as though every book comes with a surveillance camera that comes home with you. So we think it's really critical that this arrangement builds in real strong privacy protections because our nation's bookstores and libraries have fought hard for that, and we think we should accept no less online.

CONAN: Indeed, that's been an issue in the law regarding actual, physical print libraries in the not-too-distant past, indeed, the very recent past. So this is obviously going to be an ongoing concern.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: That's absolutely right. In fact, one of the groups that we represent in our objection in the case is a publishing company called Ronan Press, and they do a lot of books around marijuana policy, drug policy. And in fact, just a short while ago, they received a subpoena from the Drug Enforcement Agency asking for the name of every person who'd ever bought one of their books in the state of Arizona. And they fought and were successful in resisting that over-broad request, but it just shows there are things we have to worry about.

CONAN: Well, Fred Von Lohmann, stay with us for a little bit if you would. Jessica Vascellaro, we're going to thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. VASCELLARO: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Jessica Vascellaro is a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She covers Internet companies and joined us today from our member station in San Francisco, KQED. We're talking about Google's project to digitize millions of books and how that could change the world.

In a few minutes, one of the managers of Google Books will join us, also more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We know change is coming to the book world. The printed world is rapidly going digital. Leading the charge is Google. As we've heard, not everyone is comfortable giving one big company control over such a huge virtual library. Others argue it's about time.

Writers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, how is this going to change things for you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

A manager from Google will give us the company's perspective in just a moment. Right now, our guest is Fred Von Lohmann, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I wanted to read some emails that we've received, this from Sara(ph) in Farmington Valley, Connecticut: A bunch of books, regardless of format, is not a library. A library has a collection that is carefully selected, organized, catalogued and presented for easy use. Whether digital or virtual, it is staffed by professional librarians who know the collection and can help users find the information they need. Google books is more like a heap of books on the floor. Many of those books, particularly the newer ones and the ones that were not purchased legitimately, are not complete. This is not a library. Yes, I am a librarian, though I work in private practice and not in a public library.

Brian(ph) in Seattle writes: Due to budget issues and decreased revenue, my local public library now charges $5 per inter-library loan request. Last year, this service was free. Therefore, I welcome Google's electronic library. Hopefully, it will make my future research more affordable or free again.

And Christine(ph) in Volcano, California, writes to say: I'm a book binder. I love the digital move. Books will become more and more precious and collectible. My work is secure. On the other hand, the information will be free. Well, free to view, maybe. You may have to pay to buy it.

Fred Von Lohmann, let me ask you. You say Google could establish a virtual monopoly here, no pun intended there. Could Google itself do something to spur a more competitive marketplace?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Yes, I think Google could do some things, and in fact, they have taken a few steps in the face of all of this criticism. They have made efforts to make some changes. And in fact, just last week, in testifying before Congress, Google's representatives said that they would be willing to let other companies, like Amazon, for example, be a reseller for some of the books they have. And so that's a step in the right direction, but we're still left with this problem that as to the books whose owners can't be tracked down or who aren't interested in answering the junk mail that gets sent to them, for those books, largely out-of-print books, those will be Google's to scan, and anyone else who does it will face a copyright lawsuit. And so that's something that we need to level that playing field, and it's not entirely clear to me Google could even fix it by themselves.

CONAN: And on the privacy issue, has Google given you any assurances that they will not turn over records of who's been looking at books on marijuana policy or terrorism?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, Google has again, just on the eve of all of these objections being filed, posted a privacy policy for this new product, and I'd encourage the listeners to take a look for themselves. It does take some steps in the right direction, but it doesn't really commit Google to protect user privacy the way we think they should.

To give you two examples, first of all, Google's privacy policies, of course, can be changed without notice, just as they have been many times in the past. So we'd like a little more than just something changeable like that. And secondly, we think Google should really insist on getting a warrant before they hand over this kind of personal reading information. And so far, Google hasn't been willing to commit to insisting on seeing a warrant before they hand that over.

CONAN: And let's get some callers on the line. Michael's(ph) on the line, calling from Chicago.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. This is a really good subject, and I'm glad that you're talking about it. I've had the unique experience of being a bookseller back in the late '90s, and I'm now a librarian. I have been one since 2001. So at the same time - you know, at the beginning, it kind of hurt me as a bookseller, but now I see it as a good thing and as one of those inevitabilities that is going to happen. We should regulate it, but to fight against it would be just to fight against an oncoming tide. And I would like also to remind the viewer - or remind the listeners…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Listeners.

MICHAEL: ….out there that one of the main publishers for peer-reviewed articles, Elsevier, has been around since the printing press was invented. And I'll just take comments off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Michael, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And inevitability, Fred Von Lohmann, that seems to be right.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: I do think everyone agrees that getting these books online and accessible is a great project, no question about it. The dream of the Library of Alexandria should live on in all of our hearts. The question is just whether this deal is the right one. And it was interesting that the caller mentioned Elsevier, which is a very large company, which controls a lot of electronic databases. And many universities, for example, already complain that Elsevier has such a powerful position having exclusive access to some of these journals that they are already feeling the pinch of price gouging at the hands of Elsevier. And those same university libraries are saying some of the same things with respect to Google, a fear that if there is this one library in the hands of Google that ultimately, price gouging may be a real problem for the university community.

CONAN: And let's talk with Sara(ph), Sara calling us from Ann Arbor.

SARA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I am an author, and I also run an author's Web site called Book View Café. And the people I know are not so much concerned that Google is doing this but the way in which it is being done. The assumption is being made by Google that they have the right to publish whatever they choose, and the author is left with the burden of proof as to whether it is copyrighted or in print. And if we cannot prove it to Google's satisfaction - not to the law's satisfaction, but to Google's satisfaction -Google is essentially saying it's all right for them to steal our work.

CONAN: Well, why don't we hear from Google on this point? Daphne Keller is with us, managing product counsel for Google Books. She's at the studios on the campus of Stanford University. Very nice of you to be with us today. We appreciate your time.

Ms. DAPHNE KELLER (Managing Product Counsel, Google Books): Thanks. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, and I was wondering if you could address Sara's question.

Ms. KELLER: Sure. So one of the important elements of the settlement that I think it's important for rights holders to understand is how much it builds in ways for the rights holder to come forward and tell Google exactly what to do or not do with the book. There's, you know, not only obviously can they opt out of the settlement and just not be part of this, but even with the settlement finalized, rights holders can come forward and say don't show my book at all. Or you can show it, but you have to charge the following price, or any number of very granular controls.

So the idea is actually that going forward, the rights holders continue to exercise the same kind of control they have now, but unlike now, the authors of out-of-print books, like Katrina's grandfather, with his book from the '70s on alcoholism, will have a means to distribute it. So the books are actually getting out there, and they have readers, and people have access to them.

CONAN: Sara, does that…?

SARA: And I appreciate that, but can I make one final point?

CONAN: Go ahead.

SARA: In all other cases, if a distributor wants to sell my book, the distributor must go to my publisher, to my agent or to someone else with whom I have contracted. I do not have to go to them. Why in this case do I have to go to Google and say do or don't? Why not - why don't they have to follow what is customary? If someone wants to sell something that I have produced, why don't they have to come to me?

Ms. KELLER: So this is something - the settlement was worked out over a couple of years of very zealous, arm's-length negotiations with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild, who were representing absent authors and publishers. And this is actually the set-up that was bargained for as a very beneficial outcome for rights holders, you know, precisely because it does start the revenues coming and set up the Book Rights Registry, which is a new, totally independent entity, you know, controlled by authors and publishers that has the mandate to go find the rights holders and to give them their money and to show them how to exercise that control.

SARA: And yet most authors are not in the Authors Guild. The Authors Guild represents only a small fraction of authors in America, let alone in the rest of the world.

Ms. KELLER: Right, of course, but the Book Rights Registry is seeking out all authors, anyone who's a member of the class.

CONAN: And Fred Von Lohmann, just to bring you back in, there are other writers' groups who are part of the case that's going to be heard in federal court, as I understand it.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: That's absolutely right, and in fact, a large number of foreign publishers have stepped in to complain that they didn't fully understand the settlement, it may not have been translated into all of the languages that their various constituents might speak. So there is definitely some concern in the author community that this - ironically, part of it is directed at Google, but part of the concern is directed at the balance of power between authors and their publishers, a subject that there has been a lot of debate between those two communities about who should get the rights to online publication. And so, a big part of this settlement is to try to create a place where authors and publishers can work out their disputes with each other.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Sara. I appreciate it.

SARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Fred Von Lohmann, we're going to say goodbye to you too. And we appreciate your time today.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Fred Von Lohmann, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, with us from KQED in San Francisco. Daphne Keller, still with us, managing product counsel for Google Books. We have a lot of questions for her, including this one from Jill(ph), a librarian at Ohio Wesleyan.

This is issue is a lot more complicated than you may think. Even if Google does scan in every book out there and they're all available in digital format, users are going to be faced with a lot of problems when trying to access information within each book. Google's Web-driven search of the content of the books is incredibly flawed. The proper metadata is simply not in place, and frankly it would require an enormous staff to get in place. You simply cannot extract metadata mechanically and expect it to work. I'm all about access to these materials but I can assure that I feel I am in no danger of losing my job.

And I don't know how current you are with those technical complaints, Daphne Keller, but does she have a point?

Ms. KELLER: Yes. So, I agree with her and with the librarian who wrote in earlier that there is absolutely a huge need for librarians working with this material going forward. Obviously, this product wouldn't exist at all without the efforts of libraries to preserve it over the years. And what we envision here is the content of the books that have been digitized under the settlement being searchable in libraries but with the assistance always, necessarily, of librarians to help people find what they're looking for.

And something on sort of the access point that came up earlier that should be clear is one of the services created under the settlement is a sort of free, all-you-can-eat subscription to scanned works that will be available in every public library in America. They can get a free terminal so that a kid in, you know, the rural South or a kid in the inner city can come look online with the help of a librarian and find the same works that somebody who's going to Harvard can look at. And we think this is an incredible breakthrough. It's really - it's a part of why groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Association of People with Disabilities have come out in favor of the settlement.

CONAN: And just on that point, an email from Sue(ph). I only hope that Google is going to be sure they are scanned to a format that is readable by the blind. Here's a real opportunity to make everything accessible to everyone. And is that the case?

Ms. KELLER: Yes. So, one of the major victories of this settlement is that it provides for building access for people with print disabilities to every work that is available through that same subscription I was talking about before. So, we think that there's something like a few hundred thousand books that people with print disabilities can read right now. With this settlement, it opens up millions and millions more. The National Federation of the Blind has actually been a very powerful advocate of the settlement. They testified in the congressional hearing just like week on this point.

CONAN: We're talking with Daphne Keller of Google about the Google Books project. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's bring Elijah(ph) on the line. Elijah is calling us from Sacramento.

ELIJAH (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ELIJAH: I'm a editor at a small, I guess, you could say boutique press -Flatmancrooked in northern California. And when we go to book conferences or book fairs, the conversation that we always have and the opposition that always stands out is the opposition of really large publishers to this digitization and the support by small publishers. What we tend to do is we're trying to make this movement towards creating books that are, again, art objects which is something that the Internet can never do. And the idea of these large publishers losing money because they're not able to sell these massive quantities of cheaply printed books because they're being replaced by the Internet is really a non-issue for the small publishers, who, for years have been looking at doing things that are closer to works of art, small quantity and, typically authors that don't have a big-enough readership anyway. So, anytime that we can get a bigger readership for our authors, it's always a good thing.

CONAN: All right, Elijah. Thanks very much. I appreciate that. And Daphne Keller, just to clarify for people, I mean, the new Dan Brown, that's not one of the books that you scanned in?

Ms. KELLER: It - that would not be. It's very likely that new commercial books like that might come into Book Search through the partner program which is actually separate and not part of the lawsuit. If you've looked at the Google Books product and you've seen more than a tiny snippet of a page, if you've seen a full page of a book, that means either it's in the public domain, or in the case of a very popular work like that, that we got it under a license from a publisher through our partner program.

And, actually, you should know that the same people who sued us for scanning and showing these small snippets of books from libraries are also our publishers on - or, sorry, our partners on the other side of the house. So, we have a very active relationship working with rights holders on the one side.

CONAN: Here's an email from Phillip(ph). I am writing a long academic work, and Googling of books has made it so much easier to access in a hurry and without having to wait for interlibrary loan rare books. My concern is long term. If putting books online drives down the cost of books, what will happen to the publishing of academic books which typically have a smaller audience and a higher per unit cost?

Ms. KELLER: Well, I would think that this is actually a huge upside for the publishing of academic books because it gets the books out there with cheaper distribution so that academic authors, you know, again, like Katrina's grandfather are able to find the audience that they're looking for. Something that we've heard from a lot of academic authors is that they're not necessarily looking to make a lot of money from their books. What's most important is to find a readership and get their ideas out there. And so, the settlement lets them set the price at zero if they want. It lets them maximize their distribution. It will also let them do things like put a creative comments license on their work so that further distribution is made possible under terms that they control.

CONAN: Just to be clear, if Katrina's family has - she told us - they declined payment, then the book would be free to the public who might want to download it or would there still be a charge?

Ms. KELLER: The book would be free. Although, of course, the rights holders can always change their mind and come back later and change that.

CONAN: All right. Well, thank you very much for your time today, Daphne.

Ms. KELLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Daphne Keller is managing product counsel for Google Books, and she joined us today from a studio on the campus at Stanford University.

Up next, Jasmime Guy - yes, Whitley Gilbert to many of you. She's left "A Different World" behind and continues to act, direct, dance, and write. Her next project, a tribute to Langston Hughes. But first, she joins us to take your calls. Stay with us. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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