Strong opinions, weakly held

Should Google be scanning books?

Tim O’Reilly has published excerpts of a debate he and Lauren Weinstein have been having over whether it’s ethical for Google to scan copyrighted works and let people search the contents without compensating the owners of the copyright.

There’s one angle that is not brought up in the debate. Google already scans billions of copyrighted works and provides access to them via search — I refer of course to works published on the Internet. Newspaper and magazine articles, software documentation, weblog entries, academic pieces; all of these are works protected by copyright and yet Google and other search engines index them to enable the rest of us to access them easily.

The books in question are already available for free public access via libraries. Why then should Google be barred from scanning them and enabling people to search them? Maybe there’s a difference here that I’m not seeing.

Update: Count Karl Auerbach among the people who take the opposite side as me, which is that search engines should stop indexing Web content without permission in addition to not indexing books.


  1. Maybe Google should have one legal, “paid for” copy like libraries do. After all this debate is really about money.

  2. Scale. One person loaning a book out is “different” from anyone with net access getting the same access. Or at least, that the argument often made in P2P cases… I don’t really see it as “different” but I do acknowledge the huge difference in scale.

  3. I guess it would depend on what is returned by the search — if you just get a paragraph and are referred to your library, that seems pretty mild; if you can get the whole book on-line, then obviously they’ve stolen the publisher’s right to produce an e-version of the book, etc. Not to mention, people might download it rather than buy it. It does seem odd to me that they would even get into this — isn’t there enough content to keep up with already?

  4. Copyright is a balancing act, where the interests of society as a whole are balanced against the interest of the creator.

    In the case of indexing the web, it is quite obvious to me that the greater good of actually being able to find anything on the web outweights the right of a creator to be consulted prior to the indexing.

    In any case, indexing has never depended on prior permission, whether its books or not.

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