Monday, April 06, 2009

Google's plan for "orphan" books is challenged

The Book 2 Book newsletter that I subscribe to today had an interesting link to an article regarding Google Books taken from the New York Times. It seems that Google are not content with scanning books that are still in print, but have now turned their attention to those out of print, whose copyright owners are either unknown, or for for various reasons, cannot be traced. Such books are known as "orphans" within the trade, and there are literally (no pun) thousands languishing in archives throughout the country - mostly in university and library archives.

These books may from the sound of it, have found a new guardian, since it seems that Google have begun scanning these books to form part of a huge and free digital library available to all. There is however a growing chorus of complaint within the industry at Google's plans and in my opinion, quite rightly so. This move to me seems foolish in the extreme, coming as it does, on the back of the settlement which was recently announced (subject to court approval) with regard to books whose copyright owners can be traced.

Critics say that while such "orphan" books are a valuable part of 20th century literature that should be preserved, no competitor will be able compile anywhere near as comprehensive a library as Google, giving the company a virtual monopoly on the realm of digital information. With no competition, Google will be able to charge universities and those requiring access to these works, whatever they like.

I cannot help but feel that these critics are missing the entire point. These books are still in copyright, and whether or not the copyright owners can be traced, makes not one iota of difference. The fact that the copyright owner cannot be traced cannot and should not be used as carte blance to make money from what is essentially someone else's work. Copyright doesn't end when the author dies; the right to publish remains with the author's estate (e.g., his/her family.) The time frame for this varies from country to country, but in most cases is at least 70 years after the authors death.

Copyright laws exist in order to protect the rights of the copyright holder - whether that be author or publisher. The fact that that person cannot be traced should not be used as a license to infringe those rights -which if Google goes ahead with this plan, and according to the New York Times, they have already begun work on this project, they will be guilty of. They appear to have learnt nothing from the proposed settlement and I cannot help but feel they are leaving themselves wide open to further court cases if and when some of these copyright owners (as they surely will be) are found.

The project will undoubtedly bring great benefits to the reading public, but what about the rights of the copyright holders, surely they should take precedence? Who was it after all that wrote these things and who was it that bore the cost of publication. Not Google, but the authors and publishers of these works. They should be the ones to benefit financially from these work while they remain in copyright and no one else.

The full article can be read here.

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