News Briefs, February 2005

Bruce Craig, February 2005

Google's Plan to Facilitate Research May Rekindle Debate on Intellectual Property

On December 14, 2004, five prestigious university and public libraries announced their intention to join with Google, Inc., to digitize millions of books, thus providing researchers with an unprecedented information-finding tool as well as—in many instances—the information itself. This joint effort of Google and New York Public Library, as well as the libraries at the University of Michigan and at Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford Universities, may well soon turn Google into the single largest holder of digitized published material. But the collaboration is also likely to rekindle a long-standing debate over copyright and fair use over the Internet.
Google plans to begin by scanning works that are in the public domain. Some publishers, however, worry that the effort may depress hard-copy sales of academic books in what already is a tough market. Many librarians and scholars, however, maintain that online access will enhance public access to books, provide a boon to researchers, and benefit anyone who does not have access to a high-quality collection. According to Duane E. Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, "This is a very important move forward for the public's ability to access scholarly information. . . . This enrichment of resources will entice even more users to those libraries that see themselves as learning commons."

Since only excerpts of copyrighted materials will be available online for more recent works, Google officials and librarians hope that the information will be sufficient to let researchers determine whether they want to check out or purchase books. Google will make its money by including links to online booksellers and local libraries where the books found in a search can be borrowed or purchased.
Most of the libraries that have agreed to work with Google have done so only on a pilot-project basis. Harvard University, for example, has agreed to let Google scan only 40,000 books during the pilot phase of the project. Yet the number of volumes that could eventually be scanned is astounding, Harvard alone holds some 15 million volumes. The project is expected to take years to complete.
Google also unveiled another research tool targeted at the scholarly community: a new search engine—Google Scholar—that focuses on academic materials.

According to a company statement, "Google Scholar" limits its results to "scholarly literature such as peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts, and technical reports." Google officials say they have the cooperation of a broad range of academic publishers, library groups, scholarly societies, and colleges though the officials would not name the specific participants. Google officials also claim researchers may find articles on obscure topics on their site that JSTOR and other similar search engines may overlook.

Google Scholar searches the full text of most of the documents it indexes, but in some cases the results point to articles or texts that can be seen only for a fee or with a subscription. In most such cases, users can view a free abstract of the article and then can decide whether they want to seek it out or buy it. The new tool also points researchers to other related works that may be of interest.
Google officials declined to state how they determined exactly how material is classified as "scholarly" or how Google Scholar determines which results are more relevant than others. But a company statement does claim that it "takes into account the full text of each article as well as the article's author, the publication in which the article appeared, and how often it has been cited in scholarly literature." To access Google Scholar, visit http://www.scholar.google.com.

Treasury Partially Lifts Ban on Scholarly Publications

On December 15, 2004, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a ruling that American publishers (including scholarly journals and university presses) do not have to apply for an OFAC license if they wish to edit or publish works by authors who live and work in the embargoed countries of Cuba, Iran, or Sudan. The ruling, however, was limited to informational materials that were "fully created" by people in these countries. The ruling also did not mention the licensing status of works from authors residing or working in other embargoed countries.

The decision was most likely issued in response to a lawsuit filed in federal court by four publisher groups and joined by Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. In their suit against the Treasury, the plaintiffs assert that by requiring publishers to get a license from the government to edit and publish works by authors from countries in which the United States had established trade embargoes, OFAC had issued rules and regulations that were contrary to the First Amendment and violated a 1988 act of Congress that "exempted information or informational materials" from governmental licensing.

Violators of the embargo face stiff fines of up to $1 million and jail terms of as much as 10 years.

The recent OFAC ruling is being viewed by the plaintiffs as "a very positive step in the right direction," but the suing organizations need more time to analyze the ruling before commenting on what impact it may ultimately have on the pending case. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), who was responsible for the amendment that exempted "informational materials" from OFAC's oversight, minced no words, however, when he stated that irrespective of some aspects of the ruling, "the regulations continue to represent that the government has the inherent legal authority to regulate these activities under a so-called general license. This violates both the letter and spirit of my amendment, which has been the law of the land since 1988. . . . It also raises critically important constitutional issues—in America, publishers do not need permission. OFAC is still acting like they have the authority to grant permission and that interferes with our fundamental right to freedom of expression," continued Berman.

— BC