Public Domain according to Google

It has been a busy two weeks, and I am rather late in adding my comments to Raizel Liebler’s “Open Letter to Google.”

The letter, which points out that Google declines to treat government documents as public domain works, even though section 105 of the Copyright Act says that copyright is not available for any work of the US government, has attracted considerable comment, but I still want to add my two cents.

Although Google seems to be the biggest champion copyright reformers have these days, there are several reasons not to rely too heavily on a large corporation principly interested in its own bottom line.  As I have noted before, if Google uses its deep pockets to settle its fair use conflict with publishers, the situation for the rest of us is likely to be worse, not better.

Another problem with the Google Book Project is the speed with which it is being carried out, and the consequent inability to take adequate care for the results.  As I librarian, I was distressed to find, while helping a researcher who had located a”snippet” on Google, that the citation on the snippet page was not to the correct source of the passage.  The title page image displayed with the snippet referenced yet a third work, neither the one cited nor the source of the snippet.  Such lapses make Google very problematic for its stated purpose — online access to the world’s off-line literature.

Raizel’s letter points out another problem — Google is assuming a overly narrow view of the public domain.  Whether government documents are excluded because it is too difficult and time consuming to decide what is or is not a government work or because of an obscure fear that copyrighted work might be cited with a government production, the public is being denied some of the benefit promised.  Google’s representation of the public domain is further constrained by the assumption that all post-1923 works are protected, even though the protection on many will have lapsed due to non-renewal, back when renewal was required.  The public domain according to Google is much smaller than it needs to be, and those who hope that Google will lead the way toward free digital access to our shared intellectual heritage should take note and scale back their expectations.

2 thoughts on “Public Domain according to Google”

  1. Good points but it seems like blaming Google is becoming like blaming “the state” or “the man.” Since when did Google become responsible for all of our intellectual/academic/knowledge problems?

  2. Thanks for the additional comments on this issue. Like you, Kevin, this issue came up for me in my capacity as a librarian trying to solve a problem for a patron asking why something “available on google” wasn’t truly available. Google gives users a very strong indication that everything not available is not in the public domain.

    And in response to Aisha, Google isn’t responsible for “all of our intellectual/academic/knowledge problems” but we need to stop viewing them as a shield protecting the fair use interests of the public and libraries. Their concerns are separate, yet occassionally overlapping — as Kevin and Siva have pointed out. However, if Google loses their lawsuit based on an “opt-out” theory of copyright, it will have serious implications for us all.

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