Google book-search controversy

Towards an all-digital book world


Google’s quest to make every book in the world searchable has set off fierce debates among authors, publishers and lay users

Most of the e-book projects steer clear of books, which are still in print
Some authors of out-of-print books argue that libraries have no right to share their copy with enterprises

A YEAR ago this week, Google, the world’s best known search engine announced its intention to scan and digitise all knowledge content in books.

The company said it aimed to make every printed book as accessible as a click to a website, with the ability to search through the entire book looking for a particular phrase or word.

To make this happen, Google signed up the University of Stanford, Michigan, Harvard, Oxford — and the New York Public Library — all of whom agreed to let Google digitise their holdings and make them searchable.

Changing it forever

Of these Oxford and NYPL agreed to contribute only books which were out of copyright while the other three threw open their entire collection, unless an author has specifically debarred his book from the programme.

Throwing Google at the book business, said Internet watchers, was tantamount to changing it forever, but others, notably the Author’s Guild and Association of American Publishers, and five publishing houses were more interested at throwing the book at Google.

They have filed lawsuits seeking to block Google’s plan to create an electronic catalogue of copyrighted books lying in various libraries.

Google’s initiative has seen other Net players jump into the fray. Microsoft has entered into a strategic partnership with the British Library, which will see a vast out-of-copyright collection of 13 million books, 7 million manuscripts, 56 million patents, 58 million newspapers as well as millions of stamps and sound recordings available in digitised form through an MSN Book Search service.

Amazon, the world’s biggest online bookshop, which long before the others, allowed potential readers to `look inside the book’ before buying also announced new selling models whereby one could buy small portions of a book, even a few pages at a fraction of the cost of the full publication.

Last month, the US Library of Congress launched an ambitious new project of its own to create a world digital library, which would build on its own digital library projects even while reaching out to national libraries worldwide in its attempt to blend global cultures into a single digital whole. Interestingly the seed funding of $ 3 million has come from Google.

These initiatives have set authors, publishers and lay users arguing hotly over the merits of such wide-ranging digital book projects.

There is general agreement that books, which are out of copyright, can only benefit from such Internet-based search-and-find services.

The real controversy

And most of these e-book projects steer clear of books, which are still in print and available on the world’s bookshelves.

The real controversy centres round a third category: books, which are out of print but not out of copyright. Some authors have argued that just because their books are no longer in print, this does not give libraries the right to share their copy with commercially driven enterprises. In fact, commerce is the key to the whole issue.

Online searcher

Google is expected to make its millions not from directly selling any of the contents it has digitised and indexed but from advertisers who will pay to offer their books to the online searcher.

It has already created a new search page called Google Book Search ( If you search here using the key-term `Max Mueller’s Rig Veda’, it will throw up a number of books written by the German Indologist in the late 19th century. You can also read the full text of Mueller’s translations of the Vedas.

However, if you search for Agatha Christie’s `Death On The Nile’, you can preview the covers, illustrations, even a few sample pages, but would have to buy the book from one of half a dozen publishers whose online services pop up with the search result. Most authors would seem to be satisfied with this state of affairs, particularly because the period of copyright has now been stretched from 25 years to nearly 75, thanks to relentless pressure at organizations like WTO.

“We are not stealing your works, only searching for them”, say frontline players like Google, but why should they rake in most of the profit from the intellectual property of millions of writers? So goes the counter-argument. Clearly, the e-battle is not yet over.

Meanwhile, nations like India have been prodded into their own initiatives to digitise and preserve their rich legacy of the printed word.

The Digital Library of India was launched two years ago with the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science as the nodal agency with the backing of the Union ministry of Communication and Information Technology and the U.S.-based Carnegie Mellon University.

Repositories of rare collections including Kanchi University, Sringeri Mutt, the Academy of Sanskrit Research at Melkote near Mysore, the Tirumala-Tirupathi Devasthanam, SASTRA Tanjore, various Tibetan monasteries as well as Rastrapathi Bhavan are partners in the DLI project (

In a separate initiative, the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has also begun digitising its huge collection of half a million titles including a priceless collection of newspaper cuttings.

Sate-level initiatives include the digitising of all 17 volumes of Epigraphia Carnatica, with help from the Indian Council of Historical Research.

A Bangalore-based company, Newgen Software, is turning the entire collection dating back to the 2nd century BC into CD format. Mysore is also home to the Vidyanidhi project, which seeks to create a single national database of PhD dissertations.

Such regional and national initiatives aside, the world is slowly groping towards a model of information sharing where money or the lack of it should never be a barrier.

Specific target

The Open Access Initiative specifically targets access to scientific and research information, which is often denied to developing countries because they are sewn up by a handful of costly journals and their publishers.

At the Tunis World Summit on The Information Society in November, Subbiah Arunachalam, distinguished fellow of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, was one of a small group of committed scientists pleading for new seamless digital delivery systems for knowledge sharing. (See their monograph openaccess)

Hopefully, such academic initiatives, and the more hard-nosed ones from the Googles of the world, will make common cause in the global challenge of seamless, ego-less information sharing.
Courtesy: The Hindu


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