Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Google’s book scanning is a public service

Google’s effort to digitize the world’s libraries has been criticized by those who feel it gives too much power to the Internet search giant.
As with many struggles involving digital content, the case pits copyright cops vs. the general public.
Copyright holders wield tremendous power and try to lock down content for as long as possible. Current copyright law is way out of synch with the public good. The public benefits from the free exchange of ideas, intellectual and creative, so copyright laws should be loosened, not strengthened.
Google is digitizing books in the public domain as well as those that are out-of-print but still covered by copyright. Sensing a potential way to make money off older works, publishers and authors are trying to extract more money and control from Google.
The Observer in the U.K. wrote about the dilemma in an Aug. 30 article called “Google’s plan for world's biggest online library: philanthropy or act of piracy?” (Read it here.)
The article quotes James Gleick, an American science writer and member of the Authors Guild. He said he was initially wary of Google’s scanning of in-copyright books, but ultimately decided the company’s proposed settlement was a fair deal for authors.
“The thing that needs to be emphasized is that this so-called market over which Google is being given dominance – the market in out-of-print books – doesn’t currently exist. That’s why they're out of print. In real life, I can’t see what the damage is – it’s only good.”
I agree. It’s not like Google is posting the latest Dan Brown or John Grisham best-sellers. It’s scanning old books that relatively few people are interested in that may turn out to have tremendous value for researchers.
Case in point: In January, I wrote a profile of Benjamin Abrams, who co-founded Emerson Radio & Phonograph Corp. in 1922, for the Leaders & Success section of Investor’s Business Daily. Abrams is a little known, but important, figure in American history because he brought low-cost home radios to the masses starting in 1932.
During my research, I learned that Abrams had written a book in 1943 called “Small Radio: Yesterday and in the World of Tomorrow.” This long-out-of-print, hard-to-find book was available for me to read online thanks to Google and the University of Michigan.
The book is available for anyone to read through the Hathi Trust Digital Library, a shared digital repository. (See the book here.) Two dozen universities nationwide are partners in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
Abrams’ book proved invaluable in writing my profile. He documented his own experiences bringing small, inexpensive radios to the consumer market. He discussed the obstacles and skepticism he faced and ultimately overcame.
I would not have seen the book if it hadn’t been digitized by Google from an original at the University of Michigan.
So far, Google has scanned more than 10 million books at a cost of more than $300 million, according to Cnet.
I, for one, applaud Google’s efforts and hope its proposed legal settlement with authors is approved.

Photos: Google scans of the book “Small Radio: Yesterday and in the World of Tomorrow” (1943)

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