Proposed Google book settlement leave libraries' rights in question

By Melinda Cervantes and Jane Light

Special to the Mercury News

October 22, 2009

It's good news that the U.S. District Court decided to hold off on finalizing the settlement among authors, publishers and Google Book Search, the search engine's gigantic new online library that scanned 7 million books from major American research libraries. While the concerns of protecting intellectual property rights are getting most of the attention, there are still too many questions about public fair use and privacy that remain unresolved.

The potential of Google's digitized library is exciting. For the first time, students who attend small colleges and people who live far away from major universities will be able to access to the same resources as those who can easily visit the campuses of Harvard, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Stanford and other great schools with vast library collections. Access to information is a great equalizer and a fundamental element of a democratic society. It is an important way to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The problem with the initial proposed settlement is a lack of specificity about how public libraries throughout the United States would be able to provide access to Google Book Search for millions of citizens. Would each library, regardless of its size and number of users, only be allowed to have one computer that could be used to access the Google Book Search?

What about access for the many library cardholders who use their home or work computers to "visit" the library's online resources? Would they be shut out?

Would the public be required to give up anonymity and privacy in order to explore Google's digitized library? Who would hold this information, and what assurance would library users have that the data would not be used for commercial purposes?

What would be the cost to libraries to access Google's Book Search — and should they have to pay anything at all, considering that much of Google's collection is material already in the public domain, and many of the books they are scanning come from publicly funded libraries?

These are troubling questions, and not just for librarians. They get to the heart and soul of what libraries are all about: equal access to information for everyone and a guarantee of privacy.

More people than ever are coming to their local libraries for resources. Some are budding inventors and entrepreneurs who are seeking inspiration for the next great innovation. Some are self-motivated independent learners who want to read, research and learn just for the fun of it. And, of course, many are students who rely as much on the public library as their school library for access to the world of information. The needs of the public are equally important as the intellectual property rights of authors.

So far, the Google settlement is being treated as if it were just another private litigation. It's not. Google's digitized library represents a huge worldwide public policy issue with complex, significant impacts that need further exploration.

We are proud that another Silicon Valley company is again creating an innovation that could truly change the world, but more in-depth study about the potential consequences of a settlement action is needed. We agree with Marybeth Peters, register of copyrights for the U.S. Copyright Office, who told the House Judiciary Committee that Congress should be concerned about the settlement.

We urge Silicon Valley's congressional representatives to take the lead in protecting the rights of the public to access and use this incredible technological resource with ease and a guarantee of privacy.

MELINDA CERVANTES is the Santa Clara County librarian. JANE LIGHT is San Jose's city librarian. They wrote this article for the Mercury News. http://www.mercurynews.com/search/ci_13619997