CNET (click here for article) has just reported that Google plans to expand their search abilities to include books by working closely with 5 major libraries to digitize books to be searchable by Google. Google plans to offer entire texts of public domain works and only biographical information for copyrighted works all at no cost to participating libraries.
Needless to say, libraries and preservationists are elated in knowing that someone other than themselves will undertake this painfully slow task of scanning each book and making it available electronically and prevent it from fading into obscurity. Students, scholars and patrons will benefit from being able to search the text of the scanned materials.
It’s currently uncertain as to how Google will proceed with copyrighted works but public domain works are fair game for digitalization. Because the future of copyright law is somewhat uncertain, it will be difficult to predict how expansive Google’s library project will be. For now, copyrighted works are locked up for life + 70 years or 95 years in the case of corporate authors. (Click here for a copyright term chart). There is also the “orphaned works” (click here for article on orphaned works) problem where after passage of such a long period of time, it becomes difficult to identify and locate the true owner of the copyright for licensing purposes.
Current developments in copyright law like the proposed Eldred Act (which would change the copyright term to 50 years renewable for a $1 fee) would certainly provide some incentive for Google as well as content owners to monitor their copyrights because copyright protection under the Eldred Act is shorter than existing law (and hence failure to renew will allow the work to enter into the public domain).
Scholars like William Landes and Richard Posner (click here for their paper) as well as Joseph Liu (click here for his paper) suggests the value of copyrights decline with time. Landes and Posner goes further by suggesting that copyrights be indefinitely renewable and suggests that copyrighted material will enter the public domain after sufficient depreciation of the copyrighted work makes it no longer feasible to seek continued protection.
However, under current law, works that provide no economic value to the owners would still be tied up (and hence the orphaned works problem that fed the efforts of Brewster Kahle and Rick Prelinger) in copyright protection. Hopefully, owners of depreciated works would see the social value in allowing Google to scan their works and preventing it from fading into obscurity. With the potential benefits to Google from this project and absent any further term extensions, you can bet that Google and people like Eric Eldred will be waiting for copyrighted works to enter the public domain.
If this proves successful for Google, I suspect Google will use its enormouse financial power to help fend off any future efforts at copyright term extensions.