Publishers balk at Google book copy plan

Project to digitize and make library books searchable online called a "broad-sweeping violation of the Copyright Act."

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Despite initial awe for Google's project to digitize and make library books searchable online, some publishers are now criticizing the plan, calling it a "broad-sweeping violation of the Copyright Act."

The Association of American University Presses, a 125-member nonprofit of scholarly publishers, made public this week a six-page letter sent to Google, whose Google Print for Libraries launched in December with the support of Harvard, Stanford and Michigan university libraries.

In the letter, the association posed a series of detailed questions to Google about the project and its scope, given that the company is making a copy of books still in copyright without explicit permission from each publisher, creating the potential for financial harm to its members.

"The fact is Google Print for Libraries appears to be built on a gigantic fair use claim, which we think is questionable at best," said Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses. "If the fair use is not valid, it could be a gigantic copyright violation. There are fundamental questions about copyright that need to be answered."

Google representative Eileen Rodriguez said Tuesday that the company respects the rights of copyright holders and that Google Print "incorporates several ways to view books to protect copyright." Those include displaying only bibliographic information and a few short sentences of text for books still in copyright, she said.

"Although we believe there are many business advantages for publishers to participate in Google Print, they may opt out, and their books scanned in libraries will not be displayed to Google users," she said.

Despite that claim, Givler questions Google's right to digitize the entirety of copyrighted works in the first place, even if publishers can opt out after the fact. Fair use in the act of digitizing books has not been tested on such a massive scale, he said, and if a court would favor Google, then those rights would be granted to any search engine.

"They may all be nice guys and have wonderful plans, but there's something here we have to have a serious conversation about," Givler said, adding that the financial health of scholarly publishers is at stake.

Google's Rodriguez said that the company encourages all publishers to contact it directly with comments and questions.

Since its introduction, Google Print has caused great excitement and some aversion. The project recently put French President Jacques Chirac on the defensive, calling for a digital library project that preserves the authority of European languages in one archive. Five other European nations including Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain eventually joined Chirac in asking for financial support from the European Union for the cause.

In addition, other publishers and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers have written Google with concerns and questions about the print project.

One concern relates to a similar Google project called Google Print for Publishers, which allows authors to upload their works into the company's database for the opportunity to promote sales and generate ad revenue in its search engine. According to the association's letter, the group is unclear whether publisher sign-off for the Google Print for Publisher service grants the company rights for its library service.

"Publishers' contracts for Google Print are title-specific and can't be interpreted as a blanket license," according to the letter.

A second worry is about publishers' ability to "opt out" of the program. According to the letter, two publisher associations have contacted Google with copyright concerns that were not addressed properly. Also, there is no public information about opting out of the program on Google's Web site, according to the letter.

"Google Print for Libraries has wonderful potential, but that potential can only be realized if the program itself respects the rights of copyright owners," according to the letter.