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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Freeing Google Books

Google Book Search allows you to download full PDFs of books which are in the copyright-free zone of the public domain. I think Google, as well as the libraries which offered their books to be scanned by Google, deserve credit for this. However, Google wants to impose some restrictions for those books, and in their usage guidelines ask you to:

Make non-commercial use of the files ... we request that you use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes. ...

Maintain attribution ... Please do not remove [the Google “watermark"].

But Wikipedia defines the public domain as (my emphasis) ...

... the body of knowledge and innovation (especially creative works such as writing, art, music, and inventions) in relation to which no person or other legal entity can establish or maintain proprietary interests within a particular legal jurisdiction. This body of information and creativity is considered to be part of a common cultural and intellectual heritage, which, in general, anyone may use or exploit, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Not only does the public domain allow for commercial republication; it also allows you to modify the document in any way you see fit. Yep, if Susan gets hold of a public domain book from 1882 she can remix it, include ads, and share the result on her homepage for the world to see. She may also just use pictures from the book for her party invitation. In short, she can do anything she likes. From the public domain license of the Creative Commons project (my emphasis):

... once placed in the public domain, the Work may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, used, modified, built upon, or otherwise exploited by anyone for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, and in any way, including by methods that have not yet been invented or conceived.

In other words, Google imposes restrictions on these books which the public domain does not impose*. I’m no lawyer, and maybe Google can print whatever guidelines they want onto those books... and being no lawyer, most people won’t know if the guidelines are a polite request, or legally enforceable terms**. But as a proof of concept – the concept of the public domain – I’ve now “set free” 100 books I downloaded from Google Book Search by republishing them on my public domain books site, Authorama. I’m not doing this out of disrespect for the Google Books program (which I think is cool, and I’ll credit Google on Authorama) but out of respect for the public domain (which I think is even cooler). It’s great to have Google mirror & distribute our culture, and it’ll be even greater if we join in and help them with the mirroring & distribution.

*Google doesn’t have to republish these books in downloadable form in the first place (unless perhaps they are bound by contract), but by doing so with altered copyrights they are setting a somewhat worrying precedent.

**E.g. the Project Gutenberg texts also come with legalese, but they emphasize that you can remove all guidelines, and “copy [the book], give it away or re-use it.” And it’s fairly trivial to remove these Gutenberg guidelines, too (whereas I don’t know how to remove the guidelines or watermark from Google’s PDFs).

[Thanks Brian Mingus!]


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