Saturday, May 2, 2009

Copyright? What Copyright?

Gloved and hunched over scanners, librarians from some of the biggest libraries in the world have spent the last five years digitising each and every page of millions of books — five million of them still under copyright.

They did it to democratise information, they said, to preserve the corpus of human knowledge for generations to come. They did it without permission from the copyright holders.

They did it for Google. Or, more specifically, for the Google Books Library Project, a virtual database containing the scanned pages of millions of the world's books.

Originally, back in 2004, the partnership between Google and America's great libraries was conceived to digitise the 15 per cent of library books that were in the public domain — golden oldies like Wuthering Heights and David Copperfield. In America (and Australia, thanks to the Fair Trade Agreement), a book enters the public domain 70 years after the author's death (in Australia it used to be 50), or if it was published prior to 1 January 1923.

That left 85 per cent of library books unscanned — 10 per cent of which are still in print and on bookstore shelves, and the remainder of which are "orphans" (books out of print but still in copyright). But because Google are uppity little nerds who consider the world as theirs to metatag, they decided to scan them all, regardless of legal status.

Arm-in-arm with librarians, Google declared they would have 15 million books digitised in under a decade. In other words, almost half of the 32 million books that humans have published.

Using the Elphel 323 — a digital camera that can scan 1000 pages per hour — librarians and Google began to scan the full texts of every book in five major university and public libraries: Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, the University of Michigan and the New York Public Library. Google archived the entire text of each book, indexing it to be responsive to search requests. Users got a few lines of text as their search result — a "snippet" — which Google claimed was "fair use", the same way a review might quote a few lines of a film or book.

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