GBS: The Government Printing Office Joins the Google eBookstore

Google Books has an interesting new partner for its Google eBookstore: the Government Printing Office. Titles ranging from the federal budget to presidential papers will be available for purchase. The Washington Post article asks, “If the agency is doing less actual printing and providing access to more its publications online, is GPO still necessary? Or does the Government Printing Office perhaps need a new name?” I would ask it a little differently. What is the GPO doing charging for these books?

Consider, for example, the detailed appendix to the Budget of the United States Government for fiscal year 2011, as prepared by the Office of Management and Budget. One can obtain it:

Since the Budget is a government work, it is not subject to copyright. I can understand charging for the printed version, which weighs over five pounds. But for the ebook? What would happen, I wonder, were someone to take the free PDF and submit it through the Partner Program, with DRM off and a download price of $0.00?

that sounds like a job for Carl Malamud.

Google is a retailer. They may have gotten the material free and then marked it up—which it is the prerogative of a retailer to do. That has nothing whatever to do with whether the publication is copyrighted. Sellers of used books, magazines, sheet music, etc., routinely charge for publications whose copyrights have expired.

I assume the GPO knows Google is charging for the books. The GPO may well be getting a percentage of the sales price. I assume the GPO investigated all the legalities of the Google sales before agreeing to them. The federal government is broke, so there is no point in asking why the GPO wants the money. Anyone who wants the publication free can easily download it free from the GPO.

Note, this publication cost money to research, compile, write, edit, lay out, etc., even if it is an electronic file. Also, anyone selling e-books has to pay to maintain the database and the website.

Does anyone, by any chance, want to support the GPO’s efforts even if it means paying the brutal, unaffordable, totally outrageous price of $9.99—which otherwise could maybe be spent on half a pizza? Thought not.

Exactly what is the problem here?

Francis, I don’t think the GPO has any say in whether Google sells an ebook edition of the Budget, because GPO does not own the copyright. I also doubt that GPO is getting paid by Google.

There is a long history of private companies profiting from publishing court opinions, which are not under copyright. These publishers (e.g., West and Lexus) made the opinions more easily available and usable for lawyers. I don’t see why the situation is any different in the case of ebooks of government documents.

Probably, GPO receives documents from government agencies in pdf for printing purposes, so GPO has no added cost for making the pdf file available to the public. But anyone who puts the document into an ebook format presumably has some costs for doing so. Then, of course, Google does have expenses in connection with running its ebook store. So the $9.99 may not be an unreasonable price.

There are a number of reasons why someone would pay $9.99 for an ebook when they can get a pdf file for free. The ebook may be in a form that is much easier to search than the pdf; they may be able to make notes in the ebook, but not the pdf; their ebook reader may not read pdf and they don’t want to haul a computer around to read the budget; the pdf probably takes much longer to download than the ebook. After all, there are cases where we buy a printed book, even when we can get a pdf of the same content, because the book is more convenient. The same situation can apply when the choice is between a free pdf file and an ebook.


There have been numerous recent articles about a new partnership between Google and the GPO. For example, see:

I have no idea whether the GPO is getting a percentage of the sales, but I hope so. They may also hope to reduce the bandwidth costs of people downloading directly from the GPO site.

As for the rest, I completely agree with you. It is very common for publishers to reprint non-government public-domain works—and charge for them. Whether these are print books or ebooks, there are many kinds of value the publisher can add, including correction of errors in the original, a short biography of the author, literary criticism, footnotes, glossary, other commentary, index, bibliography, etc. I would much rather have a Penguin or Oxford paperback of an 18th- or 19th-century novel, nicely packaged and with—or even without—value like this added, than a free but poor OCR or scan. And yes, the publisher incurs costs even hosting a website for download.

However, many people disagree. In general, the presence of a free book drives even cheap paid-for books out of the market. I don’t know why anyone would buy these publications from Google since it seems they are the same versions the GPO is giving away. Even though $9.99 is dirt cheap for a publication 1,415 pages long. However, there seems to be nothing legally or ethically wrong with the partnership.