Paul Gilster: Google Books decision opens door to create true digital library

I used to haunt libraries as a boy, usually looking for science fiction novels but also mysteries and books about astronomy. Later, as a writer, I learned the craft of research in the stacks and could pull arcane information out of scholarly journals with ease. The work I do now is a different matter, relying on materials accessed on the Internet. You would think a digital library is the ultimate tool for a researcher and columnist, but this turns out not to be the case. Not yet.

Some research journals have no online presence at all. Others offer everything behind a firewall – you’re welcome to pay for the material you need, at a cost of $35 or so for a single article. Books? If they’re current they’re certainly locked up behind copyright. Huge numbers of books from the mid- and later 20th Century are still under copyright though seldom accessed.

Out of this grew initiatives like Google Books, which takes an approach to the online library that relies on the concept of “fair use.” When it began scanning millions of books in 2004 to create its digitized database, Google Books offered users the chance to search by keyword. What the site would display was not an entire book – far from it. Instead, you would see a paragraph or a page that fit your search, and that’s it.

Legal battle over

I found Google Books helpful because I often needed to check what a particular author said about a technological trend or, in my science work, how a particular concept in astrophysics was defined. I could run the search term into the database and quickly cull what I needed.

The Authors Guild has a different take on the matter, arguing that putting an author’s work online undermines a writer’s income. I haven’t found it so, though I don’t exactly know how I would measure this. But my last book is still in print and available through Google Books in the form I mentioned above. You can search it but you can’t read anything other than targeted results.

Ultimately, the Authors Guild asked the Supreme Court to review a decision by a circuit court that found the book scanning Google does falls under the category of fair use. Now the Supreme Court has decided not to hear this challenge, which means that the legal battle has ended, and in Google’s favor. A decade-long controversy thus comes to a conclusion.

What is fair use?

I’m no lawyer, but I know what works for me as a writer and I think this decision will help nurture the resources we use on our computers. Fair use is basic to copyright law, but it is always decided on a case by case basis, which is why this case loomed so large. We want to make material available to researchers while protecting authorial rights. The purpose being served as well as the nature of the work, and the fraction of it made available, all play a role.

I can only go by my own experience. One thing I’ve learned is that a digital database like Google Books invariably leads me to books I didn’t know existed, which expands my research. Amazon also offers a search facility, but by individual books only, and again, what you can see is sharply truncated. Both Google and Amazon and sites like the Internet Archive are going to be exploring the boundaries of fair use through their decisions going forward.

So is Google Books “a card catalog for the digital age,” as Google says, or a violation of copyright? I’ll go with something closer to the former. It’s not the optimum tool because of the limitations of its interface, but with the current victory, I think we can expect innovations on that front. One thing is sure: Being able to extract snippets of text eases the burden on anyone researching a complex topic, and brings the dream of a true digital library that much closer.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at