Why Is Google Restricting Access to Government Books?

Per 17 U.S.C. § 105, any “work of the United States Government” is in the public domain from the moment it’s created. And yet, Google Book Search restricts access to snippet view: short one-inch sections around your search term. Compare the full download available for other clearly public-domain books.

My best guess is that Google hasn’t yet figured out that these government reports actually are public-domain. Here’s a hint for a future update to their copyright database: if it’s published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, it’s probably not in copyright. Open-source America’s operating system!

The thing I’ve found so weird about Google Books lately is that if you download a public domain book, you still get a little Google cover page asking you to “play fair” or some nonsense and not use the book for commercial purposes and a whole bunch of other codicil type stuff that’s not legally binding [it’s PUBLIC domain] but just asked in the “do us a favor” sort of way. I think they’d prefer to have a lot more restrictions on the use of public domain materials than they do.

There is an especially weird theory of librarianship that says even though works (authored) by the government are indeed in the public domain, the Government Printing Office also prints works authored by others that may be in copyright. The example I keep hearing is “what if somebody puts a copyright photo in their congressional testimony?”

If you subscribe to this theory, then each GPO document must be independently vetted by a qualified librarian. Indeed, U. Mich, one of Google’s partners, has/had a pilot going that did just that.

Google’s position (apparently … I have no inside information here) is that they can’t be in the position of making those decisions, so they only use dates to determine public domain, not author.

My theory is that if a GPO-printed document that’s primarily a governmental work contains a copyrighted work, it’s fair use to reproduce and distribute that work as part of the government document, at least until someone points it out and complains. It’s possible to see support for this kind of idea in the search engine caselaw; U.S. judges, at least, are inclined to let search engines provide cached copies of materials they don’t yet know to be infringing.

I can also see a laches/estoppel argument, not to mention a Veeck-style copyrightability argument.

Just wanted to add that I agree 100% with your comment James. I would assert a Veeck-style argument and say that even if the materials had copyright originally, the version of that material that is part of, e.g., a Congressional Hearing, does not have copyright.

As with Veeck, it is up to the government to exercise discretion in how these powers are used. But, our system of government cannot function properly if primary legal materials (e.g., works of government) have copyright. That was established in Wheaton v. Peters, draws on a long tradition in common law, and has been repeatedly stated by the courts.

To be more blunt, I think the librarians that worry about copyright in works of government are being wimps. IANAL, but I do have a copy machine.

Just found this blog - apologies for the late comment. It will be interesting to see when these books are marked as “full view available”. I’ve heard that Google is hand verifying that public domain books are actually in the public domain, so this collection should slowly become available in full over time.