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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3 Responses to Virtual Libraries: The Question of Copyright

  1. cmck says:

    Hi Meggan,
    Copyright is indeed a big, complicated issue when it comes to the internet. Your discussion of digitized materials is a good example of that.

    Even with the Creative Commons licenses, copyright can still be an issue. Earlier this September, there was a commercial website that took educational bloggers’ posts and put them on its own website to promote its business. The attribution was either non-existant or not easy to find. The people whose posts were used had varying degrees of bemusement and anger, especially since some of them promoted open access to education and Creative Commons licenses.

    If you want to read more about it, you can go to Brian Lamb’s blog post about the incident: He raises some good discussion about issues such as what constitutes attribution. He also quotes one artist who says that some artists don’t like Creative Commons licenses because they distance the user of the art from the artist since the user no longer needs to contact the artist directly to ask for permission.

    In a space of mashups and digitizations, copyright can be a crazy thing with many good arguments for and against, but also with much need to change. The question is “How?”


    • Thanks for the link Chris!

      I think that it is very important to remember that we, as teachers, must follow the same rules that we ask our students to learn about copyright. For example, when I ran some pro-d sessions on using Prezi I had to explain why everyone could not just google their images with no thought about creative commons licensing. Part of the session became a discussion of how to find images they could legally use. Even then I have seen several colleagues using images (in particular) that are not under a creative commons license.

      Your example of bloggers’ copyright being breached is similar. Simply being an adult does not mean that we know what we can and cannot use! I think as things move into the digital realm the confusion is only increasing. It will be interesting to see how copyright is handled in the next several years.


  2. smyers says:

    Meggan and Chris, another issue that keeps emerging as I talk to my students about copyright is the recurring question, “But where did THEY get the picture”?
    In other words, if we go on sites and find pics that others have posted, and claim as there own, how do we know that they have not simply taken it from somewhere else and not acknowledged the original publisher. i.e. in researching the history of the penny press, I find numerous images of people from the mid 1800’s etc. that others have posted to the web, but where did they get the picture in the first place? It is a complex issue as more and more people are posting to the web without the fundamental copyright knowledge you speak of…
    As you said, a great deal of time should be spent on explaining copyright and how it works…but as we have read in the last couple weeks, particularly with respect to the Google Books Project, trying to figure out who has the rights to what and at what point is a highly confusing process.

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