April 10, 2006

How Google Book Search saved the day

In late 2004, Google announced its Google Book Search feature, which allows internet users to “search the full text of books (and discover new ones),” according to the site’s main page. It’s a feature with enormous potential, but it immediately became controversial. As Wikipedia explains:

While many hail the initiative for its potential to offer unprecedented access to what may become the largest online corpus of human knowledge, the publishing industry and writers’ groups decry the project as a wholesale rights-grab. The Authors Guild of America and Association of American Publishers have individually sued Google, citing ‘massive copyright infringement’.

Being a person who creates intellectual property for a living, I clearly don’t support massive copyright infringement. But copyright law is tricky, and there’s a very good argument to be made that Google Book Search is not infringing on copyright because it falls within the “fair use” doctrine of the copyright law. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has on his blog an excellent argument for why Google Book Search is fair use.

Which brings me to my story about how Google Book Search saved the day.

My friend Rachel is writing her dissertation. At 150 pages, she estimates she’s almost halfway finished. It’s called “Negotiating the Creative Sector: Understanding the Role and Impact of an Artistic Union in an Industry.” She has used hundreds of books so far as resources, and as you can imagine she will end up with a lengthy bibliography. So imagine her horror when she realized that, for one of the books which she has already cited more than a dozen times, she completely forgot to indicate the page numbers from which she took the citations.

Enter Google Book Search.

Using Google Book Search, Rachel was able to enter the quotes that she took from the book, and the search engine showed her an excerpt from which the quote was lifted, including the all-important page number. Instead of pouring over her notes and searching through the book, she just kept entering the quotes, and Google Books supplied the pages.

The fair use provision of the copyright law says that reproduction for purposes of scholarship or research is not an infringement of copyright. It further says that the amount of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole should be considered in deciding whether or not infringement has taken place. In this instance, the purpose is clearly scholarship and research. And Google Book Search only showed Rachel an excerpt in which her quote is found — a small portion in relation to the work as a whole.

Furthermore, as Rachel told me, “I purchased the book. I own the book. So it’s not like these people have lost my money.”

It’s up to the courts to decide whether or not Google Book Search does in fact infringe on any copyrights. But in the midst of so much controversy, Rachel’s story immediately jumped out at me as a perfect example of how Google Book Search can be used as a valuable tool, apparently well within the scope of fair use.


Love your blog. If you’re interested in actually doing advertising (not that you don’t, necessarily) I’m going to try to get the company I work for to hire you.

Anyhow, I’ve been reading your archives, and I’m a bit of a grammar nazi, so …

Paragraph 5: That’s poring. Don’t recall the etymology, but I suppose you can see your pores only if you pore over your skin.

Wow. I cannot tell you how many times Google Book Search has saved my life. I have to do numerous book reviews for school, and sometimes I remember part of a quote but not where it was. It’s so amazing to just be able to search for the quote and I’m always disappointed when they don’t have the book I need.