University Publishers Accuse Google of Systematic Infringement of Copyright on a Massive Scale

May 20, 2005. The Association of American University Presses (AAUP), a group that represents 125 non-profit scholarly publishers, wrote a letter [PDF] to Google asserting that its plan to digitize books appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale.

On December 14, 2004, Google announced that it "is working with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford as well as The New York Public Library to digitally scan books from their collections so that users worldwide can search them in Google." See, Google release. See also, Oxford release titled "Google checks out Bodleian Library books".

The Google release describes a program identified as "Google Print". The release adds that "Users searching with Google will see links in their search results page when there are books relevant to their query. Clicking on a title delivers a Google Print page where users can browse the full text of public domain works and brief excerpts and/or bibliographic data of copyrighted material. Library content will be displayed in keeping with copyright law."

The AAUP letter states that Google has programs titled "Google Print for Publishers" and "Google Print for Libraries", and that the later "appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale".

"Google asserts that it can make these copies without seeking permission as a fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, and Google plans to give copies of those digitized works to the participating libraries."

"The idea that once this gigantic digitization project has been completed anyone with a computer and internet access will be able to use Google to search the collections of these libraries -- including the public domain material from the New York Public Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford -- is enormously seductive. However, in our view it is built on a fundamental, broad-sweeping violation of the Copyright Act, and this large-scale infringement has the potential for serious damage to the members of AAUP.

The AAUP letter goes on to state that its members rely upon revenue from "the sale and licensing of their publications". It adds that "copyright plays an utterly fundamental role in establishing the legal basis on which their business rests".

The AAUP letter also propounds fifteen written interrogatories, many with multiple parts, to be answered by Google. The AAUP set a deadline for responses of June 30, 2005.

These questions provide some indication of the AAUP underlying allegation. It asserts that Google will scan, digitize and index books held by the participating libraries. Some of these books and other materials remain under copyright protection. Google will enable its users to search these indices. It will not however make available to the user the full text of the protected works. It will only produce a "snippet". There is no dissemination of the full texts to Google users to complain about. Rather, the AAUP is concerned about the acts of copyright inherent in Google's scanning, and databasing of copyrighted books.

However, the AAUP is also concerned about the size of a "snipet". It is also concerned that in the future Google may make available to its users the full text of copyrighted works. It is also concerned about Google's plans to give participating libraries full copies of the works that it has scanned; it is concerned that they will in turn make these available to their users.

The AAUP has raised a legal objection to digitizing books. Others have articulated cultural objections. For example, in February of this year, Jean-Noel Jeanneney, President of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), complained that Google's plans are too anglophone. Similarly, in April of 2000, James Billington, the head of the Library of Congress, denigrated the digitization of books.

He said that "So far, the Internet seems to be largely amplifying the worst features of television's  preoccupation with sex and violence, semi-literate chatter, shortened attention spans, and near-total subservience to commercial marketing." He added that books made of bound paper, but not digitized books on the internet, "inspire a certain presumption of reverence". See, story titled "Library of Congress Will Not Digitize Books", April 15, 2000.

Most of the AAUP's members are affiliated with universities. Google's plan to digitize books, and the response that it has provoke from the AAUP, demonstrate a reversal of traditional roles in copyright debates. Typically, academic groups argue for weaker copyright laws, and expanded exemptions for educational and scholarly uses. And typically, private sector companies argue for greater copyright protection. In contrast, in the present dispute, it is the academic entities that argue for copyright protection, and a corporation that stands on the side of weak protection.

Perhaps the AAUP's letter is evidence for the proposition that academic groups are proponents of exceptions and limitations on copyright protection for educational and scholarly purposes, but only when it is education and scholarly groups that are the economic beneficiaries of these exceptions and limitations.

Google and others frequently promote Google's digitization project by stating that it will make available the great books of the famous Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Perhaps, one might also recollect the historical origin of this august library. It was founded late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by Thomas Bodley. He acquired the core collection of valuable books from Robert Devereaux (aka Essex), who stole it from the library of the Bishop of Faro in a pirate raid that also including the plundering of the port of Cadiz, Spain. The Bodleian Library was founded upon piracy. Elizabeth later chopped off Essex's head, not for stealing books, but for leading a rebellion against her.