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Google Book Search: A Literary Revolution?

1 01 2009

Always eager to enhance its cyberspace hegemony, in 2004 the internet Goliath known as Google, Inc. announced its intention to expand its seemingly ubiquitous internet presence into the realm of printed literature. Google resolved to create a fully searchable, digital collection of the literary works it was to be provided by a number of so-called partner libraries which decided to share their collections with Google. The initial contingent of partner libraries included the University of Michigan Library, the New York Public Library, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, the Stanford University Library, and the Harvard University Library.

Google Book Search essentially operates much in the same manner as the present Google search engine does. When one enters a term into the search engine, Google populates a list of relevant search results which are ranked and indexed using specified relevance algorithms. Upon clicking on a search result, one will be directed to a new webpage which can take one of four forms. A webpage will produce a “full view” if the book one is looking for is currently out of copyright or if the publisher of the book asks for the “full view” to be displayed. In this instance, the entire book can be viewed online. Furthermore, if the book is in the public domain, internet users will have access to a PDF version of the book. If the book is still in copyright but the author or publisher gives Google permission, Google will produce a “limited preview” of the book which will allow users to view a limited number of pages from the book. Without permission from the author or publisher of a work, Google will generate either a “snippet view,” which will allow for one to view the sentences surrounding the search term, or the “no preview available view” which only allows one to view the basic bibliographical information about the book.

In recent years Google has come under fire by authors and publishers alike for its Book Search project. Countless parties have claimed that electronically scanning and publishing literary works to which Google does not hold the copyrights constitutes a prima facie infringement of Copyright laws. Furthermore, Google’s new and unprecedented “opt-out” rule has only amplified the outcry of publishers and authors. Instead of expressly seeking permission from copyright holders to scan and digitize their works, Google has instead instituted a policy which allows it to scan all literary works except for those whose copyright holders have consciously acted to preclude Google from doing so.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution affords Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Copyright laws were adopted as an incentive aimed at promoting creativity and ingenuity by allowing authors of original works to realize the full fiscal value of their creations. There is no doubt that such laws are necessary to make the creation of original works financially profitable enough to induce development. Although many authors and publishers have argued that the Google Book Search might hurt their revenue or preclude them from marketing their products on other databases which pay for the rights to list their works, it is actually more likely that copyright holders will indeed profit from Google’s Book Search. Although internet users can view varying amounts of information concerning each work that they search, they cannot access the full work unless it is out of copyright or the copyright holders desire that the full contents be displayed online. As a result, billions of internet users will be exposed to literary works they never would have even known about had it not been for Google Book Search. Furthermore, in an effort to bolster book sales, Google has afforded publishers and authors the option of adding a dedicated link to their Google Book Search page which will take internet users directly from the database book to an online bookstore where they can purchase that book. If publishers and authors choose to employ this marketing technique, they will no longer have to target certain demographics via the internet based on relevancy and profitability. Publishers will now be able to bring knowledge of their products to every inch of the world, an invaluable marketing strategy which is entirely free. In order to further ensure that its project does not financially harm publishers and authors, Google has recently reached a settlement with literary publishers whereby it will create a separate fund aimed specifically at financially assisting the publishers and authors.

In its attempt to make millions of literary works publicly accessibly to all internet users, Google is undoubtedly “promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Google’s Book Search will allow for the more than seven billion people in the world to access literary works which were previously restricted to a relatively small number of people. Google’s database of literary works includes countless books which are either so rare or valuable that the average person would have no means of procuring them. By essentially relocating all literary works to the internet, a seventh grade student looking to investigate the origins of his or her hometown now has at least some degree of access to the same tools employed by esteemed archeologists. Such newfound access to previously inaccessible materials will undoubtedly promote the same growth of scientific and artistic ingenuity which Copyright laws purport to promote. Underprivileged internet users who do not even have the means to visit their public library will be granted access to a card catalog of unheralded proportions.

The Google Book Search does not only aid the inquisitive seventh-grader surveying the internet on his father’s laptop. Private institutions and public libraries will benefit immensely if Google proceeds as planned. Major institutions, such as universities and corporations, would now be able to purchase institutional subscriptions to the Google Book Search service for their students or employees. These subscriptions would allow users to access the full text of in copyright, out of print books simply by browsing the Google Server. The arduous and time-consuming task of surveying databases and downloading painstakingly large files would be supplanted by a mere Google search. Public Libraries would also profit inasmuch as Google has resolved to provide public libraries with limited access to in-copyright, out-of-print books for free, assuming that the library agreed to embrace a few specified stipulations mandated by Google.

Many opponents of the Google Book Search have sited the additional revenue which Google will invariably yield as evidence of its copyright infringement. This argument arises in response to the fact that one of the four factors which must be assessed to determine if work is a fair use of a copyright is whether or not that work will be used for commercial or nonprofit reasons. In this instance, Google’s Book Search holds both commercial and nonprofit implications. The increased volume its search engine will receive will certainly bolster ad revenues. At the same time, however, Google will be aiding public libraries and nonprofit institutions with free subscriptions to its vast databases. Copyright laws aside, the profitability of Google’s product in no way mitigates its benefit to society. Regardless of whether the Book Search server were administered by an altruistic philanthropist or a publicly traded company such as Google which is legally bound to maximize its shareholders’ profits, the opportunities which this database affords to people the world over remain invaluable.

Modern society views the internet first and foremost as a tool; a means to an end. For all internet users seeking to obtain information ranging from middle school students to doctoral candidates, Google Book Search will provide the tools necessary to accomplish their goals. Time-saving, cost-effective, and increasingly efficient, this searchable compilation of literary works does not discriminate amongst its users based on position, wealth, or age. Instead, it offers equal opportunities to all and in doing so, epitomizes the overarching rationale behind current copyright laws which is to promote ingenuity and competition. Just as Google has over the past few years found itself at the forefront of search engines, image databases, and email, Google now finds itself inextricably positioned at the intersection of literature and the internet. Google Book Search represents the expediency and efficiency which we have all come to expect and demand of the internet. As a society which purports to embrace technological innovation as a means of aiding all human beings the world over, we have no choice but to accept Google Book Search as a necessary and inevitable step in the development of intellectual interconnectivity.