Though Google's search engine may seem like the way to find out about almost anything, the folks at Google know that a lot of the world's knowledge is not on the Web — it's in books. So they created Google Book Search, an online repository that includes scans of more than 10 million books from 40 libraries.
But Google executives didn't ask the authors for permission before it started scanning books in 2004, and now the company is in the midst of negotiations with authors and publishers over rights.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin defends the scanning effort. He says Google's corporate mission is to make all of the world's knowledge searchable, and he believes books are central to that goal. Plus, he says, Google is archiving books for posterity. He cites the fires at the library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, which historians believe destroyed one of the ancient world's greatest repositories of knowledge.
"These books do get lost," he says. "This information is not backed up ... so it's important to process it."
When you do a search on Google, you get results from some of the scanned books, accompanied by a tiny snippet of the text. The limited text is a result of a copyright lawsuit by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. A settlement to the copyright lawsuit is pending approval from a federal judge; if approved, it would allow users to pay money to see an entire work. Writers who don't want to be covered by the agreement would have to opt out by Sept. 4.
Travel writer Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad, counts himself among those who will pass on the deal. Hasbrouck is angry about the settlement because he thinks it is giving away his rights.
"Publishers have clearly used this settlement to effectuate a massive claw-back of rights, of control and of revenue share," he says.
Hasbrouck doesn't think the Authors Guild represents the interests of lesser known authors like himself. He notes that revenue-sharing practices for the electronic rights to books are still evolving, and he fears that the settlement will take away his right to negotiate directly with his publisher.
"We can take it as a given that if this settlement is approved, many publishers are likely to claim many electronic rights that they don't own," he says.
University of California law professor Pamela Samuelson says the Authors Guild doesn't represent the interests of academic authors, either. Samuelson doesn't want money for her work — she just wants people to see it.
"[The Authors Guild doesn't] share the academic values that I think would lead people like me to prefer and want to maximize public access rather than maximize revenues," she says.
Though Google says authors can opt out of making people pay to see their work, Samuelson remains skeptical because some of the fine print in the agreement could be construed differently.
Hasbrouck thinks digitizing books is so important that the government should be doing it rather than Google: "Most authors would enthusiastically endorse the cause before Congress for a proper legislative solution," he says.
Brin argues that nothing is stopping Congress from stepping in: "We'd definitely love to be able to send Google search users there or to any number of resources. But, the fact is, there are no other ambitious projects."
Some critics of the settlement say that despite its flaws, they would prefer to find a way to make the scanning effort work rather than scratch the whole effort. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, is raising objections to the settlement. But EFF attorney Cindy Cohn thinks the public is better off having something than nothing.
Cohn grew up in a small town and remembers feeling limited by the size of her local library: "Google's creating a digital library that's going to create tremendously more access to the world's books than we'll have if we sit around and wait for 10 years for something better," she says.
Meanwhile, hearings are scheduled for Oct. 7. The judge could still ask the parties to amend the agreement before he approves it, and supportive critics like Cohn say that is exactly what they hope will happen.