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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 08:38 GMT 09:38 UK
Defending Google's licence to print
Google's plan to create an index of millions of books has got them into legal trouble, but technology analyst Bill Thompson thinks they should press on despite the lawsuits.

Image of Google's headquarters
Google's plan would make it a starting point for researchers and students
Google wants to scan around 20 million books from four major libraries and create a searchable database of their contents.

This is so that researchers at universities, schoolchildren in libraries and anyone at home can quickly find titles which might be relevant to their work.

Called Google Print, it is a bit like Amazon's feature that lets you search inside a book. Unlike Amazon, where you can then read a few pages from each book you find, Google will only give you enough detail to let you know that you have found what you are looking for.

It is a great idea, and the resulting catalogue will rapidly become the starting place for researchers around the world.

But it might not happen, because the project is currently stalled after three US authors sued Google for scanning their copyright material.

'Brazen violation'

The authors, with support from the US Authors Guild, call the project "a plain and brazen violation of copyright law" and argue that "it's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied."

I am an author, so I have an interest in this, and even though I have many doubts about Google's operations and ideology, I have to support them in this one.

A few years ago Mp3.com launched MyMp3.com. It was a great service which let you listen to your music collection anywhere.

They ripped tens of thousands of CDs onto their servers. Once you had an account with them, you fed your CD collection into your computer and it flagged which ones you owned. Then you could listen to them from any computer you were using.

Bill Thompson
They should let any library in the world have a copy of the electronic versions of all the books they hold that are in the catalogue. Not a link to the Google website but a real copy, to be held locally and used by the library under a very relaxed and permissive licence
It was grey enough for the record industry to sue them out of existence.

Google is big enough to stand up to the pressure, and it can afford even more expensive lawyers than the Authors Guild.

But there is a danger that now they are a public company obliged to enhance shareholder value, they will instead cut a deal with them to share revenue or pay to license this way of using the text.

We would get our catalogue then, but have lost something equally valuable - the ability for anyone else to do what Google has done.

After all, why should I not be able to scan the books I own and index them so that I can find out exactly where William Gibson first used the term "cyberspace"?

Google is having to scan books, except where the library already has an electronic edition - but at least they can do this.

We should not forget that nobody, not even Google, could legally do the same thing for documentaries on DVD or music stored on the iTunes Music Store.

The content there, even if it is itself in the public domain, is protected with encryption and digital rights management software, and breaking that protection is illegal even if you want to use the material for legitimate purposes.

It is good that they can avoid the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but we must not let a strong reading of copyright law deter them either.

Rights and innovation

There is a growing movement to treat copyright and other forms of intellectual property as if they were just like other forms of property right.

This would mean that Domino Recording, who hold the copyright in the new Franz Ferdinand album own it in the same way I own the laptop I am currently writing on.

Image of the New York Public Library which is taking part Google's project
Google's plan has come under fire from several groups
That is not the case. Copyright is a time-limited state-granted monopoly that gives the rights holder certain privileges.

It is a bargain between the state and creators that is supposed to benefit both sides, rewarding creative endeavour and therefore leading to a general improvement in society.

Rights holders have often tried to use the law to stop innovations that do not benefit them directly.

In the 1970s the movie industry tried to kill video recording, and the record industry has only just begun to realise that online distribution is the key to their future survival rather than the devil's handiwork.

Now some authors and their trade association are standing in the way of progress, even though it is clear that the main beneficiaries of the project will be publishers and the authors themselves.

They will sell more books or, if they are academics, see their research read and cited more often. There will be a general increase in the quality of university research simply because vital sources will be overlooked less often.

The world will be a better place.

Clear motivation

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig, chair of the Creative Commons, puts it clearly when he points out that the authors "don't really want the court to stop the new technology. Then, like now, they simply want to be paid for the innovations of someone else. Then, like now, the content owners ought to lose."

He is right. But even if they win, we authors ought to have any victory under current law taken away from us.

If existing copyright law can stop Google, or anyone else with the inclination, from creating such a phenomenally useful tool, then copyright law is wrong and must be changed.

There are three things Google can do now to make it clear that profit is not the only thing motivating them in the project.

First, they can change the name. "Google Print" makes publishers and authors think of print on demand and printing extracts, but even the US Authors Guild might have been happy to see the launch of "Google Catalog".

Second, and more crucially, they can open the project up to anyone who wants to participate. That means publishing the technical specifications and any relevant APIs so that - for example - I can search the database from within my web application without having to show their ads on my site.

Finally, they should let any library in the world have a copy of the electronic versions of all the books they hold that are in the catalogue. Not a link to the Google website but a real copy, to be held locally and used by the library under a very relaxed and permissive licence.

Otherwise we will just have to kick off an open source scanning project to create a free catalogue of our own - I have got a few thousand books to get started with - and let the publishers sue ten thousand of us.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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