Google’s Digital Library is Altruistic and Done with Passion

The director of Project Management at Google who is overseeing the digitizing of millions of books that could take more than ten years is Susan Wojcicki, and her grandmother had been in charge of the Slavic department of the Library of Congress for the last 30 years. Sergey Brin and Larry Page the founders of Google once rented a garage, three bedrooms and two bathrooms from her when they started out, and were paying her $1700 rent a month. After a year they outgrew the accommodation and had to rent a bigger office, and Susan who was working at Intel at the time had started working for them six years ago.

It is known that both founders were students at Stanford University working on a library digitizing project when they started the popular search engine Google, and now they all of must be well off, as the profit of the company for the first half of this year was around $712 million on a sales volume of $2.6 billion, which is 99 percent ad driven.

This is where the passion kicks in, because even before they realized the success rate they are enjoying now, they had it on their mind that someday they will do something about making the horde of library books that are gathering dust on the shelves of various libraries, available in a digital format so that some kind of arrangement can be made about their being accessed by the public.

However, the accessing aspect of the books is not as simple as what Google would have liked it to be because there is the copyright law that will give the final decision making to the authors and their publishers. What is happening now is Google seems to find it easy to convince the university libraries and Stanford that has close to 8 million books at its disposal, and where both founders were students and working on library digitizing projects, Michigan 7 million, Harvard 15 million, Oxford, and New York University libraries that will have more or less similar volumes have agreed to give the project a try.

However the libraries are simply keepers of the books and they do not have a say on how they should be used, especially with this kind of ambitious project that could copy and make the digitized books available to the public, and the publishers are saying if the public can have free access to the books, there is no need for them to pay for it. Starting from the authors, including the publishers, their source of income is from the sales of books to readers at large.

Google says except those that are out-of-copyright books, the rest will not be available in their entirety for the public to read, print, copy, or download, and in fact even the out-of-copyright books are available to read only online. What the public could access is an excerpt of less than one page of the copyrighted books and if they like the material there will be a link they can follow to buy the book. Or they could link to a library that could avail the digitized version of the book for the public to read free online, but cannot be downloaded, copied, or printed, and membership with a fee might be required.

If both the libraries and Google guarantee this arrangement, both authors and publishers could reach an agreement and it is the authors and the publishers that could be benefited according to Google, because what it is doing will help them sell more, and it could bring obscure works or authors to a wider public attention. In addition, the libraries are seeing another huge advantage that could pacify everyone involved as long as what Google is saying is strictly put to work. This process is going to digitize a big number of books giving the material a much better shelf-life than the paper that they are printed on now.

According to Stanford, which has agreed to have all its books digitized, there will be one copy on a gold disk that is known to have a much longer stress-tested durability, up to three hundred years, and another copy for active use on spinning disks that are known as RAID. This will give the books a more or less eternal life, and what the libraries like Stanford are looking at is at this particular possibility. Even if anything could happen to Google as a business entity, universities tend to last forever, and to have this opportunity come their way is very much beneficial for the whole society, because no one is in a better position than Google to foot the bill, which could be $10 a book, and could take more than ten years if the available best technology is not applied to speed up things. Even then, there is worry about the safety of the books because they could easily suffer damage and rare books are not included in the project yet.

To come back to the authors and publishers who have taken Google to court recently, what they claim is, Google did it the wrong way because, instead of saying that both authors and publishers have the choice of opting out of the project, it should have obtained their consent first, which Google had tried in fact. Nevertheless, because it was not forthcoming it decided to work with the libraries, and not all of them are excited with the idea either, as most of them have allowed only those out-of-copyright books to go through the digitizing process. And Google is sticking to the “fair use” clause even if its opponents are highlighting the fact that the kind of mass copying that is taking place will make that irrelevant and it is an outright copyright infringement.

The other glaring reality is Google is poised to make a huge amount of money from the paid ads that will accompany the search results for the books when this addition starts to attract more visitors. And how is it going to justify that? Can it come up with a way to share the profit with the publishers and the authors? On the other hand, is it required to do so legally or morally or is it a good business practice?

There was an agreement made in October, 2004 with publishers when it launched the Print Publisher Program where it had agreed to scan titles submitted by the publishers, and to share a portion of any revenue generated by ads through the process. However, the company said if it had followed that route what it would have gotten might have been only 15 percent of the available material, and that is why it chose to deal with libraries.

Whether it might have to strike a similar deal at this juncture or it will uphold the same deal might get clearer when the already started legal battle reaches the final verdict. For now, the company has stopped copying the copyrighted books until November 1, to give enough time to the publishers and the authors to opt out, even if the authors and their publishers had said that is not their job.

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