Books published before 1922, and thus no longer copyright protected, are available in their entirety. Anyone, inside or outside the university, can read them. Most newer works are assumed to be still under copyright, and only a snippet is put online: search for “Google Books Portnoy’s Complaint” and you’ll get only the publisher’s description, links to websites that discuss the Philip Roth novel, and a sampler of the most common words in the text (including bar mitzvah, Empire Burlesque, Gracie Mansion, and a number of graphic sexual terms).
Obscenities aside, this summary seems no more threatening than an old-fashioned card catalog. So what’s fueling the outrage and the lawsuits? In part, growing unease about Google’s power. Robert Darnton, Harvard’s university librarian, protested in a New York Review of Books article that when the digitization project is complete, “Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly” in providing digitized texts. That concentration makes some people instinctively uneasy. “What if Google goes bankrupt?” asks former U-M library head Richard Dougherty. “You wonder what will happen to all that information.”
But the truly incendiary questions concern authors’ rights. The two Authors Guild lawsuits illuminate the complexities posed by libraries’ seemingly straightforward desire to make their books available online.