The recent decision to support scanning books from the libraries around the US is a great victory for Google and the dissemination of information.
In 2004, Google scanned books at many university libraries, around 20 million books, most of which were out of print (1). The project goal was to place these books on the web as snippets. Public library users can read books (snippet), but not all of them unless they are in the public domain (a part of the library membership program). The reader’s interactions with scanned books are Google word search driven, unlike the sad old library system. As is always the case, in a turf war, the10-year-old stealth operation, since Google and libraries were not sure about the legality of the project, alarmed authors who rushed to hire their own attorneys to sue, pointing out that Google was infringing on authors’ copyrights. After many years of litigation, a US Federal District Court, with a spectacular outcome, ruled in favor of Google in 2013. Angry with the outrageous decision, authors appealed to the second Circuit Court in New York, where the judge rebuffed them again.
The question is now: Is it better to protect the book authors or the dissemination of knowledge by Google? Authors have limited periods of copyright protection similar to patents which regulate inventions. Making money from writing a book usually peaks in the first few years after publication. When the book becomes older or out of print, the value of the book and the generated income decreases dramatically. (I know this very well since my father-in-law’s textbook in engineering, in print since the first edition in 1957, is still generating income until now.) The Judge wrote his opinion, explaining that the ultimate goal of having books is not to enrich the authors financially, but rather to enrich the public’s knowledge — Yes! He continued, stating that both scanning and placing books as snippets are justified under “fair use” supported by the copyright Act of 1976 (1).
Knowledge harvested for dynamic interactions of electronic books is by far much better than having books printed as hard copies placed on library shelves. The metadata, Google or other computer companies generate after word searches, introduce a live and dynamic interaction with information, enriching the reader’s experience. Having said that, an author’s incentive to write books needs to be protected and rewarded as well. The Google scan achieves this goal, without watering down the future financial benefits of writing books.
Currently and with the help of Google’s innovative trend a decade ago, many text and reference books are interactive. Many graphs and equations in the e-books are modeled mathematically, and readers have the choice to interact with them, including watching video clips, interviews, and related topics added to books. The reward of making books interactive benefits readers tremendously and increases understanding of information, especially scientific textbooks . Frankly, my life has changed in the last ten years after the introduction of audiobook downloads. The ability to listen while driving has made my daily commute to work a joy. Sometimes, I am so involved in listening to a book that I wish I could have more traffic so that I could finish listening to a chapter! What also makes my commute more pleasant is the ability to download radio broadcasts on my smartphone (I usually use Pocket Casts App for that). I love listening to Freakonomics Radio, HBR Ideacast, TED radio hour, and MIT Alumni when I want to take a break and catch up with current topics.
It is really a wonderful time for readers and authors as well as publishers to open our minds to new technologies.
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