What Does the Google Books Decision Mean for Historians?

If you’re like me, over the past few years, your Twitter feed has periodically been briefly taken over by reactions—often angry, bewildered, or both—to the long-running series of lawsuits between Google and organizations representing authors and publishers. Last week, Judge Denny Chin finally dismissed the last part of that suit in Google’s favor.

googlebooksGoogle, in digitizing materials from libraries around the world, created an archive that includes many books still covered by copyright. The Google Books interface allows users to search the text of these books. For works under copyright, the search retrieves short “snippets” rather than the full text. Google’s defense was that this system constituted fair use because copyright law, in the words of Chin’s Opinion, “seeks to … provid[e] sufficient protection to authors and inventors to stimulate creative activity, while at the same time permitting others to utilize protected works to advance the progress of the arts and sciences.” These were the grounds on which he found in Google’s favor.

Historians both write and research, and in doing so, produce and consume works that have been digitized by Google. Copyright and intellectual property are polarizing issues, with one side claiming this as an unqualified victory for fair use with the other claiming that Chin is transforming the nature of copyright. The Author’s Guild, in their response to the decision, emphasized that they saw a breach of the fair use doctrine in the fact that Google is making unauthorized copies of these works and profiting from them. Chin acknowledges this, but views the use of these works as transformative—it opens up new kinds of research by giving scholars the ability to search the full text of “tens of millions of books,” gives “new life” to materials that have been all but forgotten, and democratizes access.

Judge Chin’s decision was also heavily influenced by an amicus brief filed by digital humanities and law scholars and a scholarly article written by the creators of the Google Ngram viewer that explained the value of this vast digital archive for text mining, a methodology that can reveal change over time in this vast archive. Chin quotes directly from the article by the Google Ngram team in saying that this use “can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology.”

Judge Chin’s opinion makes excellent reading. Few more lucid explications of the principle of fair use, and the transformative potential of large-scale digitization for research and teaching, have been written. It also amounts to a defense of the social value of humanities scholarship.

The Authors Guild has said they will appeal the ruling, and the HathiTrust—a consortium of research libraries that have come together to build a massive digital library based upon the digitization done by Google—is awaiting a decision in a similar case brought by the Authors Guild. The debate and the reconfiguring of intellectual property law in response to the changes brought by the digital revolution will carry on long after these cases are finally put to rest.

Do you use Google Books for research? Tell us about your experiences with it and what you think of Judge Chin’s decision.

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  1. Trish Neal

    I have used Google Books and I appreciate having access to the digital books. As an author this archive has become invaluable to me. When you’ve spent 34 years researching a group of women, having this resource made quite an impact on the information that I found here. As an author, I have concerns about my work being digitized but seeing that only snippets are there on copyrighted work, I would have no problem with that being done. At least I know the book exists and I have the information I need to track it down through a library. I have done this through interlibrary loan either using the book or being able to have certain pages copied and sent to the library. I appreciate the work that Google has been doing.

    1. Carla

      I’m an undergrad history student. I am so proud of the challenging writing assignments my school gives us! I could not have had the same access to primary sources that I’ve had, or the opportunity to really learn how to create historical works, without Google Books. To write a paper on the living conditions of the working class in 19th century industrial centers with access to an 1880s tenement inspection report was so exciting for me. I had never drawn my own interpretations and conclusions from a primary source before, and Google Books made that possible.
      In another instance I was comparing secondary sources from particular authors on a topic. My state’s university system had a lot of what I needed, but there was section of a book on Google Books that I hadn’t found anywhere else…I didn’t have the time to work on an interlibrary loan process to hunt it down and ended up buying the book through Amazon. Google Books saved my paper and led to the author selling a book.
      I’m sure there are grounds for authors’ concerns, but there has to be a way to mitigate this without eliminating or crippling what for me and many others has been a priceless resource and learning tool.

  2. arman

    earlier i found it quite useful…but i just tried a new subject after reading above…”history” was the new subject…and i followed a book in the context of oral history…this annoying following sentence occurred to me:”page 11 is not part of this preview!”.
    that certainly was a book…but for me only a confirmation of what i already knew…that book would not solve any of those probable mistakes i have about the very subject,oral history,in my head…neither that book can ever know mine or yours to the full degree…not even close.
    the judge is not judging here…he is merely giving it a chance for a proof,in favor of google against you historians…”the judge is not stopping google” is as much worthy as “the judge is not stopping historians”.

  3. Mike

    I am an undergrad history student and I am absolutely in love with Google books. I’ve used Google books, partly, to research nearly all of my papers. It is a treasure trove. It is so great to be able to access so many old books that I would, otherwise, never have had a chance to even know about.

  4. Sumit Guha

    I find Google books a valuable resource even though I have access to an excellent University library.

    Older or orphan publications of no conceivable commercial value – for example, the Proceedings of the Literary Society of Bombay, or British reports on the flora of the Andaman Islands, can be found there.

    As regards excerpts from newer books that are still in print, I would say that the free advertising probably more than compensates for occasional ‘browsing’ (as in grazing) by random readers who do not buy.

    Publishers (or their lawyers) are in any case barking up the wrong tree – the real threat to the academic model is unchecked scanning and uploading to pirate websites (sometimes in Russia or similar jurisdictions) where entire books can be found.

    I do not know what cost-effective remedy there may be to piracy, but academics should themselves consider the cost of a general collapse of academic presses in a time when “published books” are demanded for tenure and promotion. Beyond that, the end of the (admittedly sometimes imperfect) screening provided by reputable presses will make for unchecked self-publishing where well-funded wackos will drown out all other voices. Creation scientists and sundry loonies rustle through the undergrowth even as we dinosaurs slumber.
    Sumit Guha

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