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Google Offers Scanned Out-Of-Print Books Online

January 6, 2009

Scholars and others with specialized interests have been turning to Google for information ever since the company began scanning printed books four years ago.

Every month users view at least 10 pages of more than half of the one million out-of-copyright books that Google has scanned into its servers, according to Dan Clancy, the engineering director for Google book search.

“Google’s book search allows you to look for things that would be very difficult to search for otherwise,” said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of a Web site and software package called the Visual Thesaurus.

Several authors and publishers brought two copyright lawsuits against Google, but a settlement in October will make it possible for users to read a far greater collection of books, including many still under copyright protection.

The agreement also paved the way for both sides to make profits from digital versions of  books.

“We did not think necessarily we could make money,” said Sergey Brin, a Google founder and its president of technology. “We just feel this is part of our core mission. There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.”

The company announced that revenue will be generated through advertising sales on pages where previews of scanned books appear, through subscriptions by libraries and others to a database of all the scanned books in Google’s collection, and through sales to consumers of digital access to copyrighted books. Google will take 37 percent of this revenue, leaving 63 percent for publishers and authors.

Of the seven million books Google has scanned so far, about five million are copyrighted out-of-print books in a digital form that could allow writers to make money from titles that have been out of commercial circulation for years.

For users researching topics not satisfied by a Wikipedia entry, the settlement will provide instant access to millions of books. “More students in small towns around America are going to have a lot more stuff at their fingertips,” said Michael Keller, the university librarian at Stanford. “That is really important.”

After the settlement in October, Google proceeded with its scanning project while protecting the rights and financial interests of authors and publishers. Both sides agreed to disagree on whether the book scanning itself violated authors’ and publishers’ copyrights.

All parties to the lawsuits have had the opportunity to examine the 303-page settlement document and try to digest its likely effects.

Some librarians fear that as the book database grows, Google might charge high prices for subscriptions.

In May, Microsoft ended its book-scanning project, effectively leaving Google as a monopoly corporate player.

But Google wants to push the book database to as many libraries as possible, according to David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer. “If the price gets too high,” he said, “we are simply not going to have libraries that can afford to purchase it.”

Clancy said Google was likely to sell at least half of the books for $5.99 or less, while students and faculty at universities who subscribe to the database will be able to get the full contents of all the books free.

Publishers that have permitted Google to offer searchable digital versions of their new in-print books have seen a small payoff already. Macmillan offers 11,000 titles for search on Google. In 2007, Macmillan estimated that Google helped sell about 16,400 copies.

And many out-of-print authors view the possibility of readers finding their books as a cultural victory more than a financial one.

“Our culture is not just Stephen King’s latest novel or the new Harry Potter book,” said James Gleick, a member of the board of the Authors Guild. “It is also 1,000 completely obscure books that appeal not to the one million people who bought the Harry Potter book but to 100 people at a time.”

Some scholars fear that Google users are more likely to search for narrow information than to read at length.

“I have to say that I think pedagogically and in terms of the advancement of scholarship, I have a concern that people will be encouraged to use books in this very fragmentary way,” said Alice Prochaska, university librarian at Yale.

But others feel readers will continue to appreciate long texts and that Google’s book search would simply help readers find them.

“There is no short way to appreciate Jane Austen, and I hope I’m right about that,” said Paul Courant, university librarian at the University of Michigan. “But a lot of reading is going to happen on screens. One of the important things about this settlement is that it brings the literature of the 20th century back into a form that the students of the 21st century will be able to find it.”

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