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Is Google Books An Enemy Of Authors?

Michael Plassa ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

It’s hard to function normally in modern society without coming into contact with Google. Over the past decade, the company has expanded from its origins as a mere search engine to an online entity of massive proportions, providing  users with news, email service, cell phone operating systems, and almost anything else which the average person may do on the internet. Since 2004, Google has also allowed users to search their extensive database of books, providing the full text of many public domain books, and small snippets of millions of others. Though the Google Books service has been lauded by many for its efficiency and the sheer volume of information available from the database, there is one very important group of people who have a very large issue with the service: authors.

This has to do with the fact that, for the most part, the books which can be searched on Google Books are copyrighted materials, including the excerpts available to users from non-public domain publications. In 2005, the Authors Guild of America took Google to court over the perceived copyright infringement, and the two parties have been involved in a long, protracted court battle since. Though the case was thrown out of court in November of 2013, the Authors Guild has recently decided to appeal the decision.

The appeal will be a tricky one, as it is essentially an attempt to overturn a precedent which has been upheld by more than 10 years’ worth of copyright rulings, but it is seen by many authors as totally imperative to their livelihood. If the former ruling were to be upheld, Google’s infringement of copyright would be seen as “fair use,” and the company would be allowed to continue providing snippets of copyrighted materials to users for free, without providing compensation to authors or publishers.

However, if the Guild’s appeal is successful, and the original decision is reversed, it would be a monumental victory for authors and others who produce copyrighted works. As an alternative to the privately-owned Google Books service, the Authors Guild has also proposed a plan for a state-run “National Digital Library” which would provide a means of public access to the millions of copyrighted novels which have gone out of print since their original publication, and would fairly compensate authors for the ability to access the copyrighted material which they own.

By eschewing novels which are still in print in favor of finding a home for so-called “orphan books,” the service would be less of a complete database than Google Books, but would allow authors tighter control over how and when their works are made available for public access, and would compensate them in turn.

A victory for the Authors Guild, however slim the chances of that may be, would be a big blow to Google’s perceived attempts to monopolize information. Though it’s clear that such a decision would benefit authors, the pros and cons in regards to the public and their ability to access information are difficult to weigh, making this court case as interesting as it is important.

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2 Comments

  1. Sounds horribly Orwellian, doesn’t it — “a state-run National Digital Library.” To dispel the scary phrasing, try wording it this way — “a digital Library of Congress.”

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