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Google Print under attack

9 May 2005

There are growing signs of concern amongst UK publishers and authors about the Google Print project reported on in News Review 10 18 October 2004.

At the recent Booksellers’ Conference in Glasgow Nigel Newton, CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing, expressed his concern about Google’s plans to digitise book content: ‘We have all seen what happened with Napster and its devastating consequences for the music industry. While there is nothing now inherently wrong in what (Google) is suggesting, my concern is ten or twenty years’ time. In allowing our books to be scanned for free access we are opening a Pandora’s Box and we have no idea where it will lead. It is a short-sighted decision that could see our content the subject of battles between multi-national companies. I have no doubt about the good intentions of the company in question, but I am worried that more sales in one year could lead to fewer sales in twenty years.’

Google Print is currently planning to let users view only about five pages at one time and 20% of the text at the most in a month, but publishers can alter the restrictions. Random House US has recently signed up to a pilot project and there is no sign that American publishers or authors are currently feeling the same concern about the eventual outcome.

Speaking for authors in the UK, Mark le Fanu, General Secretary of the Society of Authors, has written to publishers expressing its concern about Google’s plans: ‘Controls against extensive use of digitised books and against the downloading of substantial amounts of material are in due course likely to be circumvented… Some publishers may be inclined to assume that they are free to allow companies like Amazon and Google to digitise texts, by virtue of electronic rights clauses in authors’ contracts, or under terms allowing promotional/publicity usage. We think that digitisation of whole texts goes way beyond ‘publicity’ and many contracts will not include the relevant electronic rights. In any event, we believe that authors’ consent should be sought individually, regardless of the contractual position.’

It’s always hard to see into the future. Digitisation of text and the power of the Internet offer undreamed-of opportunities to change the way text can be stored and retrieved. No-one wants to be a Luddite in the face of new technology, but Google Print’s plan will make the actual content of books available free online. It seems reasonable that authors, as the copyright holders and creators of the material, should share in the income produced. Newton’s concern therefore seems valid: ‘It is the exploitation of copyright for financial gain, and the publishers and authors should benefit from that. It is about giving away for free what we used to sell, and it doesn’t get more fundamental than that.’