Virtual Libraries: The Question of Copyright

In their discussions of the creation of online libraries through the scanning of texts, both Kelly (2006) and Grafton (2007) highlight the potential that this trend has in making texts accessible to a much larger percentage of the world population and thus helping people to improve their knowledge and literacy. Although they overlook some elements, including the accessibility of technology to the world population, they do highlight one valid concern; that of copyright. Through the details of Google’s work in scanning texts and the resulting international legal battles, the question of digital copyright is brought to the forefront and we must begin to consider the ramifications of pitting social concerns against commercial ones.

As Google has been one of the front runners in the digitization of texts, they are the target of much of the conversation surrounding copyright and how scanning texts may or may not violate an author’s rights to their own texts. Grafton explains that “Google, controversially, is scanning these [possibly copyrighted] books although it is not yet making them fully available; Microsoft, more cautiously, is scanning only what it knows it can legitimately disseminate” (2007, para. 16). The contrast between the two approaches is interesting, particularly given their sometimes competitive nature. With both large companies pursuing the same goal of digitizing more texts, the difference reveals something more about the companies themselves and their views of intellectual ownership Google has faced lawsuits over this issue since 2005, resulting in a 2008 decision (that established guidelines for the United States alone) that Google must follow the Books Rights Registry and provide compensation to authors and publishers in exchange for an agreement not to sue the company further (Skidelsky, 2009). The question remains, however, as to whether or not this agreement does enough to protect authors and publishers. Does Google have the right to scan and share texts for which no one steps forward to claim compensation?

Given the looming threat of copyright now hanging over Google as more lawsuits continue around the world (for example, see Flood, 2012; Blade, 2012), it is interesting to note that the earlier competitors in the race to digitize texts, Amazon and Microsoft, have now both reversed their approaches and were a part of the original lawsuit (Skidelsky, 2009). Although the societal benefits of digital copies may be immense, the commercial concerns over copyright overwhelm the issue, leaving strict limitations upon what may or may not be scanned and distributed. In particular, Google’s scanning of texts has raised concerns not only over their violating copyright by duplicating texts that are still protected, but also by their thinking that there was no need to first gain the consent of the authors and publishers (Kelly, 2006).

I cannot help but wonder if many of these concerns are arising at least in part as a reaction to the newness of the medium. Presenting full texts online is a relatively new option and, as with most things, it will take some time to establish the details of its inner workings. Over ten years ago when discussing copyright on the Internet there was a suggestion that the need for copyright would “fade away in the digital environment because it will be unnecessary or obsolete…[and] will have no relevance in the electronic environment” (Gasaway, 1998, pg. 1003). Clearly this did not turn out to be true as millions of dollars are now being invested in seeking an answer to only one copyright question, whether it is lawful to scan books without compensating the author and publisher or, at the very least, obtaining their consent. The speed of electronic development is outpacing the advancement of copyright law and is forcing companies, individuals, and average people to reconsider what intellectual property is and what control or compensation people are entitled to.

The ways in which thoughts about copyright and the Internet have evolved since these comments were made shows the ways in which technological thinking can evolve at a relatively high speed. Whereas fourteen years ago the discussion centered around a lack of need for copyright, today it is focused upon how best to respect copyrights that are already in place and what copyright laws may cover the current additions to the electronic world. In another ten years the conversation may shift once again to viewing certain texts as open source and free to the world or perhaps it will become a world where copyrights are a part of the text itself, with a mark visible on every copyrighted text. Either way, the potential benefits and difficulties within both the social and commercial realms are limitless and cannot truly be calculated until our current copyrights are firmly established and include the emerging elements of the digital world.


Blade. (2012). Appeals court suspends suit on google book scanning. France 24. Accessed from

Flood, A. (2012). US authors seek damages in google books copyright rows. The Guardian. Accessed from

Gasaway, L. N. (1998). Copyright, the internet, and other legal issues. Journal of the american society for information science. 49, 11, p. 1003-1009.

Grafton, A. (2007). Future reading: Digitization and its discontents. The New Yorker: New York.

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan this book. New York Times: New York.

Skidelsky, W. (2009). Google’s plan for world’s biggest online library: philanthropy or act of piracy? The Guardian. Accessed from

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