Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Judge dashes Google's digital library dreams

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 11:04 AM

click to enlarge leviCoffin

Yesterday, in New York City, America's publishing capital, a U.S. Circuit Judge ruled that Google's digital book project — in an effort to protect authors' and publishers' rights and contracts — has gone too far. (Read more about that ruling here.)

I have to tell you, though, as a writer and an avid reader, I'm a little torn.

Here's an example of why: My great-great-great uncle, Levi Coffin, wrote a book in the 1870s. For years, I had a difficult time finding it. And, when I did find it, I was going to have to pay quite a bit of money to get a copy of it. That stunk because I wanted several copies for several family members. The project became cost prohibitive, so I set it aside.

Then, about a year ago, I found the book via Google books (see) and not only read it, but shared it with family across the country, family who has often wondered what would possess a small business man to get so involved in the Underground Railroad. (By the way, it's speculated he and his wife are included in the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, which you can also read online thanks to Google books.)

I know no one from my family is looking for royalties for a nearly 150-year-old book. Nor do I know about the families of other authors. Maybe they do want a cut from Google's proceeds, though I doubt we're talking huge money here for most books.

So, I see both sides of this issue: I love the idea of making books as widely available and accessible as possible. I also have a deep understanding of what it's like to be a working writer, so I have sympathy for those who don't want to give up their rights. And, in a time when it's easier to self-publish than go through a traditional publishing house, I can also empathize with the publishing industry's freak out over Google's project.

One way around this, I think, is for, say, the Library of Congress to pick up where Google left off.

What do you think? Should any for-profit company be allowed to digitize the world's collection of books, or should the government do it? Either way, what should be done about publishing and author's rights if we do decide to digitize all books?

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