Harvard-Google Project Faces Copyright Woes

Three months after undertaking an ambitious project to digitize thousands of books, Harvard University Library (HUL) and the Google Print project are facing scrutiny from publishing organizations, who claim the project may infringe copyright law.

Google is in the process of scanning 40,000 Harvard library books, which will be made available for browsing on the internet. Harvard is taking part in Google Print’s pilot program, which also includes collaborations with the University of Michigan, Oxford University, Stanford University, and the New York Public Library. If successful, Harvard may opt to digitize all 15 million of its volumes.

In December, Google Project Manager Adam Smith said that books in the public domain will be fully available online so researchers can use Google Print in place of a trip to the library. He added that much smaller excerpts of copyrighted works will be displayed.

While Google may upload some of Harvard’s copyrighted works, they will not yet be displayed, HUL Director of Publications and Communications Peter Kosewski told The Crimson at the time.

But Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers—an international association of over 300 not-for-profit publishers—wrote in an e-mail that even with these safeguards, she and the publishers she represents object to the project, which plans to digitize copyrighted books.

“The law does not permit wholesale copying (which is what digitisation is) by a commercial organisation of works that are still in copyright,” she wrote. “It is also illegal to make those works available digitally once they have been copied.”

Morris wrote that Google needs to obtain permission from publishers before using their work. While she wrote that it may be impractical to ask every publisher, Google should ask permission through collective licensing organizations.

But Jonathan Zittrain, faculty co-director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in an e-mail that he believes the pilot project is not a copyright infringement.

“This is what fair use is designed for,” he wrote. “By showing only snippets, the market for the books themselves is not harmed.”

Zittrain added that publishing industry practice “has become extremely cautious and that quite often firms ask each other for permission.”

A Google spokesperson said that Google intends to work directly with publishers but did not speak directly to the copyright concerns raised by publishers.

Morris also said Harvard might not be able to discern which books are copyrighted because of varying copyright regulations in different countries.

In the U.S., works copyrighted before 1923 are generally in the public domain, while in many other countries, the copyright period is determined by the number of years after the author’s death, according to HUL Associate Director for Planning and Systems Dale Flecker.

As a result, “Google will likely do something very conservative initially,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that technological advances may make determining the copyright status of books easier in the future.

Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers—the principal trade association of the book publishing industry with 310 members, including the Harvard University Press—raised additional concerns. He said he is concerned that Google is digitizing the works without knowing how Harvard will restrict access to the digital copies.

Adler said digitization may create “an ease of reproduction and distribution of copyrighted material” if Harvard allows its students internet access to the digital copies.

But Flecker wrote that HUL has worked out a system to provide “on-line access to the public domain works [while access to] works still under copyright will depend on publisher/copyright holder permission.”


The project has also come under criticism from Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the French national library, who has already digitized 80,000 volumes of the French library. He said the Google project would inevitably be biased in favor of English language and Anglo-Saxon publications. Jeanneney’s complaints were reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month.

Jeanneney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Flecker, however, insists that HUL’s vast amount of foreign works will counteract the Anglo-American influence Jeanneney proposes.

“Well over half our collection is not in English,” Flecker said, adding that non-English books would be represented in digitization project.

Notwithstanding the criticism, HUL Director Sidney Verba ’53 says the project has generally been well-received and will continue as planned. The copyright laws in question are aimed at corporations, not libraries, he added.

“Overall, there has been more positive reaction than negative,” he said. “Copyright laws are written for companies like Time Warner and Disney instead of research libraries like Harvard. [These laws are] not aimed at us.”