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University of Michigan President Distresses Scholarly Publishers
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Posted On February 13, 2006
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, created questions, heartburn, and controversy when she spoke at the recent annual meeting of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division (http://www.pspcentral.org) of the Association of American Publishers (AAP; http://www.publishers.org). Her address, titled "Google, the Khmer Rouge, and the Public Good," concerned the Google Book Library Project at the University of Michigan and issues related to copyright, preservation, and providing public access to knowledge.

Four years ago, the project began when Michigan alumnus and Google co-founder Larry Page said that he would like to digitize the 7 million volumes in the University of Michigan Library. He estimated that the project would take 6 years to complete. The Google Book Library Project was announced in December 2004 and includes the university libraries at Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and Michigan as well as the New York Public Library.

Acknowledging the ongoing criticisms and concerns of publishers, Coleman said, "It is this criticism of the project that prompted me to accept your invitation to speak and explain why we believe that this is a legal, ethical, and noble endeavor that will transform our society." She stated that the project is legal because copyright allows the fair use of the millions of books being digitized. According to her, "[The project is] ethical because the preservation and protection of knowledge is critically important to the better of humankind. And [it is] noble because this enterprise is right for the time, right for the future, right for the world of publishing, right for all of us."

Coleman supported her view of the project as a public good by pointing out the obligations and commitments of the university. "We are the repository for the whole of human knowledge, and we must safeguard it for future generations. It is ours to protect and to preserve." She talked about the special need to preserve brittle books and books that are damaged or that are at risk of being lost forever.

In anticipation of publishers' criticism of the project she said: "Let me assure you that we have a deep respect for intellectual property—it is our number one product. That respect extends to the dark archive and protecting your copyright. We know there are limits to access to works covered by copyright. If, and when, we pursue those uses, we will be conservative and we will follow the law. And we will protect all copyrighted materials—your work—in that archive."

Audience reactions indicated that publishers are less concerned with preservation and more concerned with the potential uses of copyrighted works by project participants and Google. In its description of the project for users (http://books.google.com/intl/en/googlebooks/help.html#pagelimit) Google stated: "We respect copyright law and the tremendous creative effort authors put into their work. So, unless any given book's publisher has given us permission to show sample pages, you'll only be able to see the Snippet View which, like a catalog card, shows information about the book plus a few snippets."

Coleman stated that Google Book Search will whet the appetites of users and drive them to libraries, bookstores, and online retailers. She sees a new business model that will broaden the market for books.

The safeguarding and preservation of knowledge and books are primary objectives of the project. Coleman stated that the culture of Cambodia was lost in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge "took over the National Library, throwing books into the street and burning them, while using the empty stacks as a pig sty."

Coleman stated that she also is a publisher and shares publishers' goals. The University of Michigan Press publishes 165 titles per year and has 2,500 titles still in print. She is concerned because some university presses are "awash in red ink" and survive only with infusions of money from university funds. "The bottom line, for me and for you, is that our publishing houses and our authors can only benefit financially and reputationally from the widest possible awareness of books and their availability."

In her conclusion, Coleman talked about the importance of the project and of getting information and books to people and stressed preservation, access, and the public good of education.

People in the audience raised issues about copyright, access to the dark archive, digitizing without author or publisher permission, out-of-print books still in copyright, and whether Google will make money from the snippets (the two or three sentences that the company adds to the catalog records for the books). One questioner clearly was distressed about the snippets. Coleman reiterated that they are only two sentences long and that they will stimulate sales of books.

Patricia Schroeder, president and CEO of AAP, said that publishers are for digitizing works in the public domain. She pointed out that Google is a profit-making company making a copy of a copyrighted book. Google did not ask permission to copy and did not work with publishers on the project. Last fall, the AAP joined the Authors Guild in also filing a lawsuit against Google for copyright infringement.


Miriam A. Drake was professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library.


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