New Life for Old Books, but a Question Arises…

As the parties in the Google Books case get back to the drafting table (this time with very special guest, the United States Department of Justice), one of the stated benefits of Google’s massive scanning undertaking seems to be taking root.  According to the AP (via the Daily Journal Online), Google has allowed 2 million of the out-of-copyright books to be published by On Demand Books.  Before I get to the somewhat boggling bits, the report states that On Demand, the maker of the Espresso Book Machine can print a 300-page book in about five minutes, and the prices will be around $8.00 per book, with On Demand keeping $1.00 and Google getting $1.00.  Presumably the balance is comprised of materials cost? (Apparently Google will be donating it’s share to charity…)

Okay, here’s the part where it gets a little weird:  “Neller of On Demand Books is thrilled just to have the right to publish selections from Google’s digital library of public domain books.”  If the books are in the public domain, it would seem that On Demand would not need permission to print them.  And yet Google has placed restrictions on what one can do with the PDFs:

  • Don’t engage in large scale redistribution or rehosting of the files
  • Don’t sell digital or physical copies, or help other people buy and sell them
  • Don’t send automated queries to Google’s system
  • Don’t remove the Google “watermark” you see on each file
  • Respect the Google Terms of Service

Well, they’re guidelines more than requirements:  each of those bullets is preceded by “Please,” which is a really fudgy word, and the whole entry is prefaced with a “we ask that you follow some basic guidelines.”  I get that Google is probably trying to be approachable and not a content tyrant, which is appreciated.  And I get that there are transaction costs that are avoided by On Demand using Google as its storehouse of content, but doesn’t it seem odd that someone is getting the “right” to make copies of works that are no longer in copyright?  And isn’t that, in some way, already the concern about Google doing all this in the first place?

Anyway, I’ll admit that copyright is a thorny, complicated issue that is probably better suited to an article or book (hey, there’s an idea!) but I just wanted to point out that not all is crystal-clear in Google Books land.  This isn’t to say that there is necessarily anything inherently wrong in what On Demand and Google have agreed to do, but something about it strikes me as odd.