The kerfluffle about Google books, which has resurfaced since the surprising University of California decision to contract with Google as well as with the Open Content Alliance, seems to be missing the point. So much of the crosstalk I have seen seems to be about the same old questions of publishers rights, open access, serving users, and the like. But the very fact that the University of California is contracting with both Google and the Open Content Alliance ought to be raising very serious questions about long-term licensing agreements and giving away our publicly accessible holdings to for-profit companies.
At a recent Boston library consortium meeting somebody came up with a great phrase which a really wish I could remember, but essentially it was how in the past we've been much too prone to giving away our rights in return for having somebody else do the work. And the important thing to remember as librarians is that it's not our rights were giving away, it's the public's rights to view the information.
In the most recent Chronicle article about the University of California and the Google project
, they explore some of the contract negotiations which have been made public.Both the university and Google will get digital copies of the scanned works, but there are some restrictions on how the university can use its copies. The university can offer the digital copy, whole or in parts, "as part of services offered to the university library patrons." But the university must prevent users from downloading portions of the digital copies and stop automated scanning of the copies by, for example, other search engines.
Entire works not covered under copyright can be distributed to scholars and students for research purposes, but there are limitations on in-copyright material.
What I'm hung up on here is "entire works not covered under copyright can be distributed to scholars and students for research purposes". If the materials aren't covered under copyright, why is there a limitation on the situations under which the entire work can be distributed? These are public domain materials, correct? (And it's not clear to me whether or not the University of California has the right under their contract to offer the same books to the Open Content Alliance, or if by having Google scan them, they have locked up that digitized book in Google for ever.)
Once upon a time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to be giving away rights like this because if the private companies didn't do the scanning, the materials would never be made available at all. But the University of California is already involved in projects with the Open Content Alliance. Every day they're proving the point to a non-profit organizations committed to openness can also do this work. The University of California defends its decision to work with Google as well on the grounds that the Open Content Alliance Scans as many books in a month as Google scans in a day, to which I can only respond "is there a gun to your head? Is the need to scan 3000 books a day so urgent?"
As a disclaimer, I don't know the answer to that question I just asked. Maybe their need is that urgent, maybe their contract with Google, which has not as far as I know been fully disclosed, is airtight in favor of the university and the public interest. But I do think this arrangement should be prompting people to ask more of these questions. Once you enter into a licensing agreement for something like this are often stuck, and I think I might be time to take a step back and think about pace, and rights, and why we are doing this. It may be that what the University of California is doing is exactly right, but it is still prompting us, in my always so humble opinion, to be asking these questions.