The Google Book Search Controversy
AEI Newsletter

Google's plan to digitize some of the world's largest library collections and make them searchable online has proven controversial. The universities of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford have all joined the project, while the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers are suing Google for copyright infringement. On February 24, the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies hosted a panel discussion examining the potential costs, benefits, and legal ramifications of the Google Book Search project.

Robert W. Hahn, executive director of the Joint Center, introduced the parameters of Google's two-part project to digitize 25 to 30 million titles. According to Hahn, publishers authorize Google to make the full text of a copyrighted book available within the Google database under the Print Publisher program. Once copyright holders opt into the program, users can search for a word or phrase and view the entire page of the book in which it appears, as well as several surrounding pages. Under the more controversial Print Library project, Google scans books without checking with the copyright holder then shows only snippets of the texts in the user results, and copyright holders must opt out of the program if they do not wish their works to be part of the project.

According to Hahn, potential problems associated with the project include copyright holder costs, its effect on the production of new and creative works, and the protection of intellectual property rights. Douglas Lichtman of the University of Chicago characterized the dispute as Google simply attempting to establish its database without asking permission for each book it indexes versus copyright holders claiming that Google should seek their approval first. While he praised the project generally, he argued that authors need greater incentives to create and disseminate work and that the legal framework for this task needs to move beyond current technologies.

Hal Varian of the University of California–Berkeley defined what constitutes "fair use," one of the legal questions in the dispute over the Print Library project. Fair use involves the purpose and character of the project, for example whether the enterprise is commercial or noncommercial; the amount of copyrighted material used, of which Google shows users only a small portion; and how use of the copyrighted work affects its potential market value, which Varian described as minimal since the book search is a complement to--not a substitute for--the full copyrighted work.

Varian also compared the opt-in and opt-out models. He warned that the opt-in model would be cost-prohibitive as it would force Google to track down every copyright holder and negotiate with them, and he found the opt-out model to be more cost-effective. Lichtman countered that since Google is not the only company that will be making large amounts of copyrighted materials available--Yahoo! and Amazon are undertaking similar projects--copyright holders will be required to monitor all the sites and programs from which they intend to opt out. He favored an alternative structure that would allow authors to either grant or refuse permission directly to use their works.

Varian reiterated his praise for the project, noting that users seeking hard-to-find books currently only available in certain libraries will be better off and that any judge presiding over cases involving the book searches should take into account the promise that the project may revolutionize research. He predicted that "an easy-to-use, widely accessible, generic-rights clearinghouse would make a lot of these problems go away."

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