November 22, 2017

BackTalk: Free (or Fee) to All?

In 2004, when five libraries inked the first book-scanning agreements with Google, it seemed like the company was offering a public service. Google’s plan to digitize the great libraries of the world conjured images of a vast, freely accessible Internet public library, bringing together corporate capital and vast library collections, with the potential to carry knowledge off the shelf virtually into every home and workplace.

In the course of Google’s effort to bring library collections to the web, however, something quite different than an Internet public library has emerged.

“Fee” to all?

While public libraries’ doors are open and their collections “free to all,” as the Boston Public Library inscription famously proclaims, the Google Book Search settlement is a stark reminder that businesses are sustained by very different motivations than libraries. Control over library collections, once guided by the values of learning and research, is now a commercial matter. Goodbye free, hello fee.

It’s now clear that books will be a lucrative business for Google, bringing revenue not just from advertising but also from sales and licensing of out-of-print books [see Francine Fialkoff’s “Google Deal or Rip-Off?” Editorial, LJ 12/08, p. 8]. The proposed deal not only solidifies Google’s dominant position in Internet search, it gives the franchise a virtual monopoly on the long-tailed out-of-print book market. And the barrier-to-entry for would-be competitors gets higher with every book it scans.

According to the terms of the settlement, public libraries in the United States would be eligible for a license providing free online viewing but only at a single terminal and only for on-site library users. So much for the promise of the digital age. This sounds more like the age of the CD-ROM.

For access at additional terminals, libraries would have to pay a subscription fee. If users want to print, a per-page fee will be assessed. Institutional subscriptions will also be sold to academic libraries, corporations, and governments.

At least works that are in the public domain, such as those published before 1923 or U.S. government documents, will be free of restrictions in digital form, right? Not exactly. You see, Google insists on being the gatekeeper, requiring users to gain online access to these works via its proprietary search engine.

Of course, Google’s intent in restricting access to public domain books it has scanned isn’t nefarious. It’s just self-­interested. Without restrictions, Google’s competitors could also derive benefit from the company’s investment in book scanning, so Google prohibits other search engines from crawling works it digitizes. After all, without Google’s investment, the logic goes, millions of books might otherwise be stuck on library shelves for many years to come. Sounds fair, right?

Public work

No, it is not fair to place restrictions on public domain works. After all, they belong to the public. These collections are only available to Google because of the public funding afforded to the nonprofit institutions that developed them. Libraries invest untold dollars to select, purchase, catalog, store, and preserve a single book, a book that now costs just $25–$30 to scan and put online. In effect, for the one-time price of a scan, Google now proposes to secure and enforce a monopoly on the digital texts of works that belong to the public.

As we consider where to go from here, I urge libraries to insist that Google withdraw all restrictions on uses of scanned public domain works. It seems there’s little risk to Google in doing so, especially in the wake of its lucrative deal with rightsholders. On the other hand, access to library collections has saved the company millions of dollars. Just as timber companies don’t get a free pass to use federal lands, protections for the public domain should be part of commercial arrangements to exploit the public’s library collections.

The long haul

In most endeavors, the discipline of the market is a positive influence. But long ago humankind recognized that specialized public institutions, libraries and museums, are necessary to preserve and share our cultural heritage. These institutions have been a splendid success, enabling successive generations to learn from and build on the record of civilization’s achievements and failures. The question now: Will Google’s efforts turn out to be a bargain for libraries or their undoing?

The answer will depend on us. In the short term, one bright spot is that libraries that open their collections to Google are entitled to copies of scanned works. Even with contractual restrictions, these scans can help fuel innovative ventures, like the HathiTrust, to build a digital library that embraces and carries forward core library values. Over the long haul, the proposed Google settlement and promising ventures like the HathiTrust remind us that libraries must support the development of a real Internet public library. This will require new funding strategies, coordinated library action, and public-oriented principles to guide us.


Richard K. Johnson is a Consultant on scholarly communication issues. He was the founding Executive Director of SPARC from 1998 to 2005.

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