Risk or Reward in Google Print?

First, authors sued Google over their library project. Now it’s publishers’ turn, according to an article by Scott Carlson in the Chronicle – “5 Big Publishing Houses Sue Google.”

When Google first announced their library project I figured this was an interesting way to call the question: what does fair use really mean in a digital age? Google believes not only that this project would be good for the publishing industry, but that it’s within fair use. Jonathan Band agrees in an ARL report – but clearly the old concept of “copy” needs tweaking in a digital era. These will be precedent-setting cases to watch.

Academic librarians tend to frame our understanding of – and conflicts about – intellectual property around issues of scholarly communication. But as Nancy Ramsey points out in a New York Times article, “The Hidden Cost of Documentaries,” the implications for culture are far wider and more complex. We need to be aware of copyright issues beyond scholarly communication. Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture and Siva Viadhyanathan’s Anarchist in the Library are interesting approaches to the big picture.

Incidentally, Lessig’s book is free online from his site; Vaidhyanathan’s is full-text searchable through Google Print and Amazon. So far, civilization as we know it hasn’t fallen as a result. And it didn’t stop me from buying both in print.

I can’t help wondering – if lending libraries were invented today, would publishers lobby to delete the “first sale” doctrine from copyright law, arguing it enables a harmful form of organized piracy?

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

12 thoughts on “Risk or Reward in Google Print?”

  1. What about the effect this will have on the non-profit university press community? Mr. Lessig is free to give away all the content he wants, as long as it’s his. Google is giving away our content. I’m not talking about snippets, I’m referring to the complete digital copies they are turning over to the participating libraries. Those libraries are among our best customers. They have most, if not all of what we’ve published in our 50 year history. They have all bought or subscribed to our digital content in the past. Now they won’t need to. We are attempting to digitize our own out of print content so we can bring it back into print and offer digitally. Google is causing irreparable damage to that endeavour.

    We have a mandate from the university-Be sustainable. Make less money, then publish fewer books. It wouldn’t benefit ARLs or scholarship to have those books published by the for-profit sector instead. We work hard to make all of our content as affordable as possible. What Google is proposing is a wonderful thing, how they have chosen to do it is wrong and will ultimately hurt scholarship.

    Tony Sanfilippo, Marketing and Sales Director, Penn State University Press

  2. Tony, I have huge respect for university presses – and my last question was a barbed one meant to make people think but honestly I was thinking more in terms of the AAP’s approach to these issues rather than that of the AAUP – though that organization, too, has expressed concern about the Google project. I personally (though not a lawyer) thought Google’s approach was likely not legal, but given general reluctance of publishers to join Google Print, I found it a bold and interesting move.

    Here’s a question: say publishers win this round. Will it make UPs any more financially viable than if Google were to win? The library whose copy was digitized will own one digital copy, just the one, and other libraries won’t presumably have access to it. Google having a copy on which they base their searchable version won’t cut into revenue since it won’t be possible to read much of anything online (less, in fact, that in Amazon’s Search Inside). There’s potentially some sales to be gained through readers discovering books. So while on principle it may make sense to say this is illegal, and a big, rich company shouldn’t throw its weight around, I don’t follow an argument that libraries will buy fewer books as a result.

    I am concerned we’re buying fewer books – because we are spending more on other things. I wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek piece for Library Journal about it when Northeastern announced it was closing. I’m not sure it shows, but I was enormously angry when I wrote it because I wasn’t hearing much concern from academic librarians. And we need the university presses more than ever.

    PS: Siva, thanks for writing your book!

  3. Siva, I like your books too. Thought provoking stuff.

    Barbara, if publishers win this, then Google can do one of two things. Either abandon the project, or negotiate with publishers for rights to index. I, for one, would let them do it for free if they gave me a copy of the digital files instead of the libraries. I can’t afford to digitize all of our books. If they gave me a copy I could sell our older books, both in and out of print as either cheap Print On Demand editions or in digital form. Either way, we’d be better off than the massive amount of income we stand to lose by Google giving away our digital content. As I’m sure you are aware, a library with a book can lend that book to one person at a time. But, a library with a digital file of a book can allow an infinite number of users to access it simultaneously. In a perfect world, that would be ideal. But in the reality of a market, that would seriously hamper our ability to continue to produce quality scholarship.

  4. But libraries won’t share the digital file of books in copyright. The University of Michigan, at least, says they won’t do anything illegal with their digital copy of a book still under copyright (“we will not be sharing the full text of coyprighted work with the public” according to a press release). I think any university that decided to make in-copyright books fully available online to all libraries free of charge without agreements with publishers would be courting disaster – and I can’t imagine any of them plan to do that. They would be sued, and rightly so. (Even Google’s fair use argument, which is as a stretch, relies on the public seeing only a “snippet.”)

    Google first approached publishers. When they didn’t get as much interest as they hoped, they turned to a handful of prominent libraries. The majority said “only books not in copyright.” A couple of them siad “hey, it’s risky,but let’s give it a whirl.” So while you could argue Google shouldn’t do it without first asking … well, they did. All you can really argue now is that when publishers said “no” Google found a different approach. That’s what I found bold and interesting. We’ll see if the courts buy their fair use argument. But if I thought it endangered university presses, or in fact any book publisher, I would be dead set against it. To paraphrase Willy Sutton on banks: that’s where the books come from.

  5. Publishers should be begging google to scan their books. Remember, these are the same people that went crying to mommy about amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature. And what happened? They sold more books. Hmmm.

    Boy, I sure wouldn’t want a few hundred million people to be able to search every last word of my published works. Oooooh. Perhaps one or two more people might choose to pick up a copy of their own.

    Google is not releasing the full text. If an academic library does release it to multiple peope at one time, they are in violation of copyright, not google. There is NOTHING that says a book cannot be scanned to index the information inside it. Period. (Side rant: What if every web site had to “opt in” to get indexed by search engines? How useful would the web be today?)

    I am constantly amazed by the sheer stubornness of peple that just don’t “get it.” It’s like a 2 year old screaming “Mine! Mine!” Perhaps when the last of this analog generation retires we can finally make some real progress.

  6. I’m not amazed. Publishing books is a brutal business, and public institutions that had considered it a public good are trying to find ways to cut corners and act more corporate. Our university presses are under tremendous pressure, and libraries haven’t helped because we aren’t buying their books or taking to the barricades to defend them.

    Trade houses were spooked by file sharing – and many of them have the same corporate owners as the recording industry. (You could say the recording industry imploded on its own, but they obviously blame illegal downloading of music.) Consider, too, that copyright law has been reworked in favor of ownership, not the public good. So it doesn’t surprise me one bit.

    I hope, though, that we work through this without slamming the door on innovation because I truly believe it will help an industry that I support. And because we need a better balance – just think about those documentary makers. Is it good for anyone, even IP owners, that their hands are so tied? I don’t think so.

  7. Barbara,
    I do hope that all of the libraries in the project restrict that use and that they don’t allow full public access. But only one of them needs to decide that their constituency includes all web users and the cat is out of the bag. To my knowledge the other libraries in the project haven’t given any such assurances. There is also the issue of e-course reserves that I think will become exacerbated. University presses are watching the sales of their paperbacks plummet, and we can make direct correlations to the increased use of e-course reserves. Profs who have used books for years are now asking their libraries to post those books online. We’ve found up to 80% of a book posted online, often unsecured, or secured with a password that the prof posted publicly on their syllabus. What Google is proposing to do will make that much more common. Until there are better guidelines as to what fair use means, we have to be concerned about the unintended effects of such a massive digital duplication of our content.

    All of our in print books where we control the copyright are currently in the other Google Print program, Google Print for Publishers. My concern is the rest of the books we published in our 50 year history, our out of print books, approximately 60% of our list. Google is giving those libraries something we don’t even have, a digital copy of those books. I can’t sell what I don’t have. While we own the rights to those books, we don’t own the files needed to bring them back into print. I’d love to be able to bring those books back into print and if I could I would have no problem having them included in the program, but with Google giving files conservatively worth tens of thousands of dollars to some of my best customers, the economic feasibility of doing that is seriously eroded.

    In an Op-ed piece I wrote in Publishers Weekly a couple of weeks ago, I proposed Google give us a copy of the files they’re giving the libraries. If they do, I’ll be able to convert our backlist to affordable PODs and yes, I’ll be able to sell those books. And hopefully the income we gain from finding new markets for those books will offset the income we will lose by Google bartering our content for their index. But considering all of the libraries in the project have either bought or subscribed to our content in the past, and now will no longer need to, I can’t help but see this as a net loss, and not something I should “be begging” them to do.

  8. “…we don’t own the files needed to bring them back into print…”

    Wha? Now there is an interesting little detail. How is that possible? Obsolete technologies? But if you can’t sell them anymore, who cares if someone gets a look for free?

    Please pardon the attitude in my first post… this stuff really gets me worked up. Just don’t get me started on the MPAA and RIAA. Talk about industry suicide.

  9. Tony, thanks for pointing out your editorial (Sept. 26th issue, inside the back cover – I recommend it highly). I totally support your suggestion. If participating libraries get out of the deal a digital copy of a book previously not digital, so should publishers. It’s a win-win. And if Amazon doesn’t follow suit with “search inside,” it would sweeten Google’s deal with publishers, no?

    Not to mention for the rest of us. We’d have a much better chance of access to backlist titles that are not economically feasible to print and store. Publishers would be able to use those assets to meet their bills, professors who only need 20 copies available for their seminar could assign them even though under the current arrangement there’s no market for keeping 20 copies in print just in case, and a thousand flowers would bloom.

    For what it’s worth, Tony, I’ll swear on my grandmother’s grave (my mom’s still in the land of the living so I can’t swear on hers) that the only other library in the project that is not limiting their involvement to out-of-copyright books – Stanford – will not illegally share files of books. They say they won’t. I believe them, as I believe U Mich. We don’t hate publishers, really. We knock Elsevier around a lot, but we don’t generally hate publishers and we love UPs. We just don’t always understand the ins and outs.

    And I suspect few of us librarians realized you would be in a situation in which Google would have a digital version of your books – and you wouldn’t. Of course – a lot of the backlist wasn’t born digital. Duh, shoulda known, but thanks for making that clear. I appreciate you reaching out to us to explain this since we do depend on each other for survival.

    We’ll still need to buy your books, by the way. Free indexing isn’t going to change that. Our students insist on books – “real” books, in their words, not online ones. And good for them.

    Maybe this is a dumb question but – have publishers asked for digital copies for books not born digital and has Google refused? It seems like a cheap way for Google to win friends.

  10. Thought I’d throw in a couple more links here. LJ Academic Newswire has a short gloss of a Slate article, “Leggo my Ego,” that poses the problem as being between a culture of exposure and a culture of control.

    While I agree exposure is good, I think the control issue is a real one for those publishers who are happy about the potential for exposure but who fear Google may develop a product line that will use these digitized books for something other than searching. And though Google is always cheery and upbeat, they aren’t known for being entirely upfront about their future plans. Rory Litwin raised a number of interesting issues in “On Google’s Monetization of Libraries“in the late, lamented Library Juice, so even some librarians have serious reservations. (Concerns far beyond Michael Gorman’s worry that people will not read whole books as a result.)

    Finally – Tony Sanfilippo has a number of interesting comments and links from a publisher’s perspective. I would love to find a way for Google’s library project to work for all of us, and I think he makes a good case for how that could work.

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