Courts Reject Google Books

A district court in New York recently ruled against Google’s proposal to digitize every book ever published, halting a project for which 850,000 of Harvard’s books have already been scanned and challenging the tech giant’s plans to tap into a larger portion of Harvard’s 17 million volumes.

Instead, the University now plans to continue to develop a plan for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a vast collection of online volumes that will represent a collaboration between Harvard and many other public and private libraries.

Harvard agreed in 2005 to let Google scan nearly a million books in Harvard’s collections that had already entered the public domain. Harvard was one of four academic institutions initially approached, along with Stanford, the University of California colleges, and the University of Michigan.

But in October 2008, when Google returned to the University with a plan to expand the pool of preserved books to include texts under copyright protection, administrators rejected the proposal, citing the legal risk involved in allowing Google to digitize the new volumes.

According to leaders in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research institute at Harvard Law School, Harvard administrators will continue to focus on the separate DPLA project, with the aim of attracting further capital this spring. The project has already received backing from the Sloan Foundation.

But the initiative faces numerous challenges.

Harvard Law Professor John G. Palfrey ’94, a co-director of the Berkman Center, noted that the project is “incredibly complex,” requiring page-by-page scanning of every volume.

“At this point, I couldn’t even give you an accurate guesstimate of when this project is going to be completed,” Palfrey said.

The project will seek to create a free and accessible online library, allowing for the broader dissemination of written materials to the public. The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution have already began collaborating on the initiative.

“This is a very, very ambitious project,” University Professor and Director of the Library Robert C. Darnton ’60 said.

Darnton has previously expressed concerns about the Google proposal. He published an opinion piece in The New York Times on Wednesday arguing against Google’s project, calling the New York court’s decision “a victory for the public good” and urging Google to join the coalition spearheading the DPLA program.

“[Google] has scanned about 15 million books; two million of that total are in the public domain and could be turned over to the library as the foundation of its collection,” Darnton wrote. “The company would lose nothing by this generosity, and might win admiration for its good deed.”

Google’s latest legal setback comes after the company settled for $125 million with several publishing houses and the Authors Guild, which had sued for “massive” copyright infringement in 2008.

The following year, the Department of Justice raised initial objections to Google’s settlement, saying the agreement violated antitrust laws and would put much of the digitized resources available under the purview of one for-profit firm.

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at gkumar@college.harvard.edu.

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