copyright questionDear Doc,

A few years ago, I remember reading that Google was digitizing every book in a bunch of libraries, and that soon, we would be able to search them all online.  What’s up with that?

Still Waiting After All These Years


You’re right – Google did start the Google Books Project in 2002, and with the cooperation of several major libraries, including Harvard, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library, Oxford and Stanford (collections estimated to contain 15 million unique titles), they managed to scan a whole lot of books (more than a million, and most long out of copyright.)  Then the publishers got wind of what they were doing, and before you could say Gutenberg, the Author’s Guild and McGraw-Hill sued Google for copyright infringement.  That was in 2005.  In 2009, the parties reached a settlement agreement which they submitted to the court.  The agreement provided rules under which publishers and authors could “opt-out” of Google’s project, and which distributed revenues from advertising.

You see, a problem for everyone is that there are “orphan works” which may or may not still be protected by copyright, but for which no owner is known or even locatable.  These books represent a small fraction of the books in libraries, but like the proverbial few bad apples, they spoil the whole batch.  Google, for its part, agreed that it would show only a catalog-card view of books that were still protected by copyright, instead of allowing the entire book to be read online or downloaded.  All was well, until the judge rejected the settlement, and there it sits.  There are a lot of books, but nobody seems to know what to do, and the chances of getting the copyright laws changed to something a bit more rational are, well, zero, given that movie studios, music labels, and others seem to want to go back to that brief period about 400 years ago when copyright lasted forever!

Along came the Internet Archive and the Long Now Foundation, and a few other forward thinkers.  How, they thought, could a digital archive of every book in the world, be made to fit a copyright law that is digitally ignorant?  The result is  The aim is to have one web page for every book ever published, and to operate just as a physical library does – lending each copy of the book to one user at a time.  Voila!  Publishers have no legal basis to complain (at least, not yet) and within just a few years, millions of books have become available.  In addition, using the copyright law exception for the visually and perceptually impaired, just about every book has been scanned and digitally recorded, so as works fall into the public domain, they will be readily accessible.  OpenLibrary is not the best solution, but it’s certainly a creative way to mesh our 19th Century copyright laws with the technology of the 21st Century.  Check it out – there are lots of great books on the digital shelves.

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.