Google's Book Search Tool

Debbie Elliott and New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen examine the dilemma that search engine Google poses with its Google Book Search tool. The powerful software can scan whole sections of books for reading online, raising questions of copyright infringement.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Google, the gargantuan online search engine, has gotten into hot water recently over Google Book Search. It's an ambitious plan to digitize libraries and make them searchable online. But several organizations have sued to halt the program because Google would be scanning copyrighted material without permission. Today with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll examine the ethics of Google Book Search. The question comes from Tony Sanfilippo at the Penn State University Press, one of the publishers involved in the program.

Hello, Mr. Sanfilippo.

Mr. TONY SANFILIPPO (Penn State University Press): Hello.

ELLIOTT: And, Randy, are you there?

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine): Hey, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So, Mr. Sanfilippo, tell us about your role in this and what's troubling you.

Mr. SANFILIPPO: Well, what's conflicting me is while we agree that what Google's doing is a very admirable thing, we're a little concerned about how they're doing it. We share a mission with Google: the dissemination of knowledge. But the way Google's going about it, the scanning of the books at the libraries--that doesn't seem to be fair. They're not asking our permission to scan those books. They're giving a copy of everything that they scan to the libraries that are participating, and that, of course, means less revenue for us, which hurts our bottom line and makes it less likely we'll be able to publish scholarship in the future.

ELLIOTT: How does it reduce your revenue?

Mr. SANFILIPPO: All five libraries that are involved have our books, and they've all either subscribed or purchased digital content from us in the past. Now that Google is scanning the entire libraries, they won't need to do that anymore, and that's our concern.

ELLIOTT: And that money you use to publish new material.

Mr. SANFILIPPO: Exactly. We're a university press; we're a not-for-profit. We've got a mandate from our university to be sustainable. You know, if we make less money, we publish fewer books.

ELLIOTT: Do you have to give them permission to do this?

Mr. SANFILIPPO: Well, normal copyright has always required that permission is requested by the person who wants to make the copy. Google hasn't asked for permission here. What they're asking us to do is opt out. If we don't want our copywritten material copied, we have to fill out a form and prove that the material is ours, and then Google will not scan it.

ELLIOTT: Randy, is that even legal?

Mr. COHEN: I'm not a lawyer, and this is a--I should say right away that what Google's doing is controversial among both scholars and lawyers. There's not a consensus here. But as an ethical matter, opt out is a terrible idea. It's as if a burglar would say to you, `You must file a list of things you don't want me to steal. I'm sorry if your TV's not on that list. If you haven't opted out of my burglary program, I feel that you've, in effect, given me permission to come to your house and take, you know, whatever appliances I like.' As an ethical matter, Google, in my view, must get permission from the publishers, from the copyright-holders, not just from the library. They can't just go ahead and make copies of millions of copyrighted books for profit, we should say, without getting this permission.

ELLIOTT: Tony, have you discussed this at all with anyone from Google?

Mr. SANFILIPPO: We've been in conversation with Google--there's two elements of the program. One is a publisher program, where we can submit any book that we would like to be indexed, and we've contacted Google about that. In fact, almost all of the books that are currently in print that we own the copyright on are in that program. Our concern are the books that we no longer have physical copies of, but we still own the copyright. We're trying to digitize those and then offer those for sale, but Google's sort of undermining that by what they're doing here.

Mr. COHEN: I'd like to add a couple things, too, to what Tony said. If a library, for instance, wanted to make copies of books in their collection for the use of its patrons, then they more than likely could do that, but a corporation doesn't have the same leeway. Libraries are in business for the public good; they work for us, and corporations work for themselves.

I'd like to say--at least make a kind of defense for what Google's doing. There is a counterargument here. There's not universal disagreement with what Google's doing. And a fellow named Tim Wu(ph) has written--there are many Web sites that deal with this, and he's pointed out that one thing we should bear in mind is that what Google's doing, it limits what you can see and what you can copy. They're not putting the whole book online for people to copy. It's a way to search books; it's not a way to get books for free. And Tim Wu points out this is not Napster for books; it's much more limited.

The other counterargument many people have made that defends Google is that none of the publishers have actually shown any evidence that this Google search index will reduce their sales. I think Tony's gotten that, what the risk is, but it could be argued that they won't, that by making these books so searchable, it, in fact, could encourage sales, and it's unclear how this will work out.

ELLIOTT: Tony, do you think this in any way could actually improve business for you?

Mr. SANFILIPPO: The voluntary program has improved business for us, but our concern really is the books that are not yet in that voluntary program. Out of print, but in copyright, the libraries will have digital copies of them, and we won't.

ELLIOTT: Tony, has Randy's opinion given you any ideas of what you'll do next?

Mr. SANFILIPPO: I'm not sure what we're going to do next, but I feel a little bit better that we're not in the wrong, that we're not fighting progress at the sake of the public good.

ELLIOTT: Thanks. Tony Sanfilippo is with the Penn State Press. Thank you for writing to us.

Mr. SANFILIPPO: Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: If you've got a question for the ethicist, go to our Web site at npr.org, click Contact Us and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Be sure to put the word `ethics' in the subject line, and give us a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, thanks for joining us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie.

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