Chats with the University Librarian

June 8, 2009 | Chats with the University Dean

“What Google Books Deal Means for Libraries” is the first in a series of chats with Curtis Kendrick, CUNY University Librarian, on a wide variety of topics affecting libraries, CUNY and the community at large. Since Curtis took office in 2004, he has been committed to improving access to information through exchange of ideas and resources among CUNY faculty and the library, within departments, and with other NYC educational and cultural organizations. In the same spirit of exchange, this column encourages dialogue among all of these communities. We invite our readers’ responses.

What Google Book Deal Means for Libraries

Since Google began work in 2002 on its plan to digitize millions of books in the collections of major research libraries, the digital conversion project known as Google Book Search has been the subject of intense debate. After publishers and authors sued Google for copyright infringement, Google agreed to seek the permission of copyright holders before licensing their material. If the settlement is approved in the coming months, Google will have permission to digitize nearly all copyrighted materials in the United States. Google continues to face stiff opposition from critics, including the American Library Association, and the nonprofit Internet Archive, which maintains that the settlement would give copyright immunity to Google alone and has filed a motion to intervene in this case. The Justice Department has opened an antitrust inquiry into the settlement.

Irene Gashurov, an editor for the Office of Library Services, talked to Curtis Kendrick, CUNY University Librarian, about the issues behind the Google project and what it may mean for libraries.

IG: Google’s website says the Book Search will benefit everyone-libraries, publishers, authors, readers. Some major libraries have allowed Google to scan their collections. Why is there such an outcry against the project?

Curtis: There are at least two and likely many more sides to this story. On the one hand, there is a vision of open access to an unfettered repository of digitized information, free of charge or restrictions. Every Internet user will have access to this knowledge from a terminal at the public library or from a desktop at home. Since the holdings of the great libraries will become available, scholarship stands to get wider distribution and influence. No longer will there be need to pay publishers to reprint faculty’s own publications from scholarly journals. Such access is a great boon for scholarship, for intellectual democracy.

IG: And on the other?

Curtis: In another scenario, Google will have exclusive control over this digital library. Some critics have called the Google Book Search project a monopoly over information, where the property is copyright and information. If this holds true, Google can charge whatever prices it wants for access to its online materials. And with no competition, it will have full copyright privileges to orphan or out-of-print books.

IG: What is at issue with out-of-copyright books?

Curtis: They are at the heart of the controversy. It could be said that Google is renewing access to this out-of-print material, which can get lost in library stacks. But according to the settlement, which I hear has been delayed until August, there’s no copyright infringement, only because no author or publisher can be found to authorize Google’s use of these books. Orphan books make up a large part of research library collections. That’s the territory over which the Internet Archive is in opposition to Google. Internet Archive is saying that the settlement agreement gives Google exclusive rights to digitize orphan books, which is why they’ve intervened in the case.

IG: So what’s the optimum scenario for libraries?

Curtis: I believe that a company like Google is very useful for creating open access to the information stored in our research collections. It has the wealth to achieve this quickly. But Google should not have an exclusive right to these orphan works. If some other entity wants to digitize them they should be allowed to as well. Sometimes the possibility of competition is sufficient to ward off some of the less desirable aspects of a monopoly. Allowing for the possibility of competitors’ creating their own digital libraries can serve as a restraint on prices.