Google's Book Scanning Has Authors On Edge Google Book Search features an online repository that includes scans of more than 10 million books. But Google executives didn't ask the authors for permission, and now the company is in the midst of negotiations with authors and publishers over rights.
NPR logo

Google's Book Scanning Has Authors On Edge

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Google's Book Scanning Has Authors On Edge

Google's Book Scanning Has Authors On Edge

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Noah Adams.

It seems like Google can be a way to find out pretty much anything about anything. But the folks at Google know that a lot of the world's knowledge is not indeed on the Web, it's in books. So they created Google Book Search.

And now, Google is in the midst of complex negotiations with authors and publishers about rights, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Google didn't ask the authors, they just started scanning books. Google co-founder Sergey Brin defends this active ambition by citing the fires at the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. Historians believe those fires destroyed one of the ancient world's greatest repositories of knowledge.

Mr. SERGEY BRIN (Co-founder, Google): These books do get lost all the time. And there are floods, and there are fires, this information is not backed up, essentially, in the world. So it's important to process it.

SYDELL: It also happens to be Google's corporate mission to make all of the world's knowledge searchable.

Mr. BRIN: The books were a very important part of that, and so much of the wisdom of humanity is captured in that.

SYDELL: Since 2004, Google has scanned more than 10 million books from 40 libraries. When you do a search on Google, you already get results from some of the scanned books, but you can only see a tiny snippet of the book. That's in part because of a copyright lawsuit by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

They reached a settlement for paying the authors. It's still waiting for approval from a federal judge. Writers who don't want to be covered by the agreement can opt out, and some will, like travel writer Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad."

Mr. EDWARD HASBROUCK (Author, "The Practical Nomad"): Publishers have cleverly used this settlement to effectuate a massive clawback of rights, of control and of revenue share.

SYDELL: Hasbrouck says revenue sharing practices for the electronic rights to books are still evolving and the settlement will take away his right to negotiate directly with his publisher.

Mr. HASBROUCK: 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.

SYDELL: Hasbrouck says that the Authors Guild doesn't represent the interests of lesser-known authors like himself. The Guild doesn't represent the interests of academic authors, either, says Professor Pamela Samuelson of UC Berkeley Law School.

Professor PAMELA SAMUELSON (Law, University of California at Berkeley): They don'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.

SYDELL: Samuelson doesn't want money for her work. She just wants people to see it. Right now, a Google book search turns up only a short segment of the book. If the settlement is approved, you can pay money to see the entire work or authors like Samuelson can opt out of payments.

Author Hasbrouck thinks digitizing books is so important that the government should be doing it, not Google.

Mr. HASBROUCK: These are worthy goals, which I and most authors would enthusiastically endorse the cause of before Congress for a proper legislative solution.

SYDELL: Nothing is stopping Congress, says Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Mr. BRIN: We'd definitely love to be able to send Google search users there or to any number of other resources. But the fact is, there are no other such ambitious projects.

SYDELL: This is true. And some critics of the settlement say, despite its flaws, they would rather find a way to make it work. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, is raising objections to the settlement.

But EFF attorney, Cindy Cohn, thinks we'd be better off having something rather than having nothing. Cohn, who grew up in a small town, remembers when she felt limited by the size of her local library.

Ms. CINDY COHN (Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Google is 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.

SYDELL: On October 7th, the judge will hold a hearing. He could still ask the parties to amend the agreement before he approves it.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.