Commentary on Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book”

I chose to do a commentary on Kevin Kelly’s article entitled, “Scan This Book” in which he addresses the implications of Google’s plan to digitize all of the world’s books and house them in one searchable database. In the past, access to books was restricted to the elite class but this would create a library accessible to anyone in the world with who has the technology to do so (Kelly, 2006).

There are two major obstacles, according to Kelly, which make project difficult: the process of scanning and copyright laws. It is the latter of the two, which is the focus of his article.

The copyright laws were created in the US in 1710 (Influencing Public Policies) in order to protect the authors’ work for a reasonable period of time. Publishers then made cheap copies of the original, sold it to the masses and cultures became more educated. Since then the laws have been revised and duration of the copyright was expanded so no published works, will fall out of protection until 2019 (Kelly, 2006).

This is very restrictive and becomes more interesting as we look into the categories that the books fall.

1. Expired copyright: Anyone can print or copy. Represents 15% of all books.
2. Under copyright: cannot be copied.
3. “Orphaned Books”: the owner cannot be located but might be determined at a later date. Represents 75% of all books

It is the “orphaned books” which are creating the commotion since the question of who owns the copyright (individual or company) is not always clear and there is no central registry in which to check the data (Kelly, 2006). Publishers hesitate in using these works for fear that they might have to pay damages if the owner ever emerges (Public Knowledge). The Google Project plans to scan them and put them on Google’s internal computers to be indexed and searched. They would only show snippets (determined by the publishers) at a time with Google’s lawyers arguing that this was like quoting a book a quote and was “fair use”. Out of copyright books would be completely scanned and in print ones would show only parts.

This model outraged some authors for a couple of reasons. First is that Google now had a virtual copy sitting on their server and second, Google made the assumption that they could scan first and ask questions later. The publishers also did not agree with the definition of “fair use” that suited Google. As a result, in 2006 Google was accused of copyright infringement and two years later settled out of court with $125 million to be paid to compensate authors and publishers for the use of their works (Settlement Reached Between Google and Authors Guild,AAP, 2008).

A comment from Kelly drew my attention. He states that, “While a few best-selling authors fear piracy, every author fears obscurity”. This is an interesting quote and I can see the truth in it. Copying a book (legally or illegally) means that what is written is important, engaging or both. The elatedness for being successful and then not reaping the financial benefits would be very frustrating, but is it worse than obscurity? Most artists create as a hobby but there are the lucky few who make it their livelihood. Robert Bateman is an example of a man who had a 20 year career as was an art/geography teacher before he became a full time artist (Artists for Kids).

Publishers will print books, which they deem are profitable: that’s their business. So, when Google announced their plan the publishers woke up. They saw that there could be some money made in books that they had been ignoring. Google put the publisher in a position of the unknown and essentially changed the business model. In the past authors and producers have relied on the sale of cheap mass produced copies. The new model is based on the intangible assets of digital bits where copies are no longer cheap but free (Kelly, 2006). This begs the question of the copyright. The author has the copyright but they also need to sign on with a publisher to make money off their creation. How much control do they have after that point? The publishers appear to have a lot of control and in the fate of the author in deciding when and what to print. A well-known example is the author of the Harry Potter series J.K. Rowling. She suffered twelve rejections from publishing houses before one finally accepts to publish. Even then, it was recommended that she keep her day job as she was unlikely to make and money I children’s books (J.K. Rowling). The rest of the story needs no telling.

You can also ask the question “Why would a person write if their material was handed away for free?” Kelly did answer this by comparing authors to scientist whose payment is to have their works quoted and cited by others. I don’t feel as though this is a fair comparison since scientists are in a different position. They are paid by grants, drug companies etc. While writing is expected of them their livelihood does not rely on it in the same way as it does for an author.

I can see both sides in the argument and I feel the uncertainty in the publisher’s desire to resist change. The technology of the computer has sped up the ability to create texts faster and copy them easily and for free. Manuscripts are no longer mailed and up until now, all of the technology favoured the authors. Now they face the same challenges that the music and video did a few years ago.


Artists for Kids. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2011, from Artists For Kids:

Influencing Public Policies. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2011, from ARL: Association of Research Libraries:

J.K. Rowling. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2011, from Wikipedia:

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book! . The New York Times Magazine , 43.
Public Knowledge. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2011, from

Settlement Reached Between Google and Authors Guild,AAP. (2008, 10 29). Retrieved September 25, 2011, from Poets and Writers:

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