Copyright reform lends itself to libraries

Google wants to put the world of books online. It may have tradition behind it

Google is digitising the contents of five major libraries. The stuff that is out of copyright is no problem. The stuff that's in copyright is causing no end of bother. At first, Google said that it would scan the lot into its database, but only display snippets from the copyright material. The copyright holders objected, so Google said that it would remove material altogether if told to do so — but on a case-by-case basis. Still not fair, said the publishers. You should only put it up if we agree. If it's in your databases, you've made a copy of our material. That's the law.

Yet the law recognises that publishers do not retain total control over their products. Legal Deposit makes it compulsory for publishers to give copies of everything they produce to a national library, such as the Library of Congress, where they can be examined for free by researchers. The benefits, as enumerated by the British Library, are that work is preserved for future generations, becomes part of the national heritage, and is catalogued in national and international standard databases.

Google's work can be seen in this tradition. It is an international effort with commercial aspects, but there are many parallels between this and the aims of the great national libraries. Copyright is not an absolute right; it is a triangular deal between state, commerce and individual. If Google wants to take on the role of the great international online library — a role begging to be filled — then providing it can show that it will act in the interests of all three points on the triangle, it should be permitted.

Such a move would help solve a lot of longstanding problems. It is unclear who owns the copyright to many works, as publishing houses go out of business and authors vanish like bluebottles die in winter. Many works exist in limbo, orphans which cannot be adopted. If copyright included a responsibility to make a work at least detectable online, others can build rights databases and clearing houses to clarify ownership. If a work is visible yet unclaimed, then it should fall open — albeit with reasonable safeguards. Without a mechanism to detail the owners and status of a work, this is practically impossible, yet this would naturally follow on from an international inclusive library.

If Google wants to play this game, it should make clear the end result and the responsibilities it is prepared to adopt to get there. Publishers should also have a positive, workable proposal, one that recognises the new opportunities for them and their authors. And we too should say what it is we want, and what we're prepared to give in return. Otherwise the only books that will benefit will be the lawyers' accounts. That would make poor reading indeed.