In yesterday's Guardian John Lanchester tackles the issue of copyright and Google Book Search in a wide-ranging and thoughtful article which counterbalances the alarmed views of publisher Nigel Newton expressed in the same paper a year ago. Lanchester points out that there is no breach of copyright in GBS: if publishers do not join the book-scanning programme then only a tiny snippet of text of any of their books in print is available, yet the books are drawn to public attention and links provided to shops and libraries where they are available - which seems to me more like a service and free advertising than anything, as Kate Hyde points out on her blog. And if publishers do opt in, then only 20% of a book is available online, and you have to buy it or borrow it from a library to read the rest.
The real area of contention, says Lanchester, is those books which are still in copyright but out of print, and which 'Google wants to make available online.' His implication seems to be that Google wants to make them available online in their entirety: 'It seems to me this would mean, in some crucial sense, Google was actually the publisher of the book.'
When I recently discovered on Google Book Search two out-of-print short-story anthologies in which my work had appeared (courtesy of the participating Library of the University of Michigan) I was delighted - work which had been seemed to slip off the face of the earth was suddenly current again! - and when they disappeared off GBS a week or so later (as a result of the ongoing dispute?) I was disappointed. How many people will come across those publications if they are not reinstated on Google? In fact the books appeared in the usual Google formula: only a tiny snippet of the contents page of one was readable, and nothing of the other. Personally, though, I wouldn't have cared a fig if they had appeared whole. Actually, I'd have been happier: one of those stories of mine is not available to read anywhere else, the publishers are never going to reprint those books, and I can find only one used copy of one book and four of the other for sale on the web. Neither the publishers nor we contributors are going to make any more money out of those books, and I for one would rather those stories were still being read.