What’s Going On with Google Book Search’s Terms of Service?

Sometime in the last few weeks, Google quietly changed its guidelines on what you can do with the PDF versions of public-domain books it makes available. The new rules now warn, “Don’t sell digital or physical copies, or help other people buy and sell them.” Given that these are public-domain books, why is this any of Google’s business? I heard about the change from Yakov Shafranovich, who runs PublicDomainReprints.org and is rightly concerned that he may be forced to stop supplying the public with copies of books they have every right to read.

Do you suppose that the words “ask” and “please” in that document may be meant to convey the notion that these are Google’s requests about what they’d prefer you do with these materials, rather than asserted as enforceable statements of what you legally may or may not do?

Perhaps. Perhaps it’s meant to discourage things Google isn’t confident it could actually prohibit. Perhaps it’s an honest statement of their preference. But if it’s the latter, why does Google prefer that people not make full use of the public domain?

Google has always requested that people not make commercial use of its scans of public domain books. For example, see the discussion from 2007 on this issue in Peter Suber’s Open Access blog. In the posting, Google makes it clear that they are merely asking people to respect the large investment they have made in digitizing the books. I find it hard to fault them on that. If people would prefer digital files that are free of restrictions from even etiquette, then I would encourage them to scan the books themselves and make them available to the public.

And at least Google makes these files available for free personal searching and downloading. What about all of the digital files of public domain books in libraries that are available only to the subscribers of expensive products, and which carry legally-binding restrictions on redistribution and reuse?

I’m not sure etiquette is the right concept when dealing with large companies. I think of etiquette as regulating interactions among individuals, not between an individual and his or her search engine, bank, government, etc.

I find this irksome. I’ve been reading some old public domain stuff via Google books and the boilerplate page at the beginning of the pdf that basically asks you nicely to not do things that you’re legally (I think) allowed to do is just maddening…. I presume it’s like NYPL selling — and forbidding reprinting and reselling — the public domain images they’ve scanned but still. bleh.

NYPL’s site is worse than Google because it probably creates a valid contract between you and them, and using one of the digital files NYPL owns in a way that the license does not allow could leave you open to a contract violation suit (even if the underlying work that was digitized is in the public domain). At least this is the theory. A lawsuit involving the Berkeley Historical Society’s restrictions on public domain works was settled out of court, so we don’t know if such restrictions are binding.

So Google asks you not to use the digital file it has spent $100 creating in ways that might limit its own ability to recoup that investment. In the interim, though, you can use it for lots of other purposes. NYPL and the commercial digital vendors with which many libraries work don’t even provide that much access or put greater controls on the use of the work. Who’s the bad guy?

Bottom line: if you want the work to be totally free of all restrictions, spend the $100 to digitize it yourself and give it to the Internet Archive to exploit.