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Is Google Stealing Our History from the British Library?

Posted by Andrew at 12:02 AM on June 28, 2011

The British Library and Google have partnered to digitise 250 000 books from the period of 1700 to 1870, an era of political change starting with the French Revolution and ending with the abolition of slavery. The press release from the British Library explains the project well but some are critical that the digital versions of these out-of-copyright books will not themselves be public domain.

Consequently, I approached the British Library’s press office to get an their view on the project and the issue of copyright. Here’s what I found.

First of all, the status of the original public domain books is as it was. They’re still public domain and can be viewed at the British Library: nothing has changed there. Second, the deal with Google is non-exclusive so if another organisation or individual wishes to produce a digital version, there’s nothing in the arrangement with Google that would prevent that from happening.

The non-commerical use wording in the original press release was the source of some concern. To clarify, the digital versions of the books will be subject to a non-commercial-use-only restriction for a period of fifteen years; this is much shorter that the normal copyright period. However, the exact copyright status of the digital version wasn’t made completely clear, but providing the fifteen year period is adhered to, it doesn’t appear if the detail of the copyright ownership will be problem.

The digital versions of the books will be available from Google, the British Library and some other European archives to which the British Library contributes. Broadly-speaking this means that the content will be free (at no cost) to any individual who wishes to gain access to the material from anywhere in the world via the Internet for research purposes.

So let’s get this straight…the public domain status of the original books is unchanged. Google bears the cost of digitising the works in exchange for fifteen years of (potentially non-exclusive) commercial use on books that are of limited interest and are a minimum of 140 years old. Anyone in the world with Internet access can look at the digital books for non-commercial use, instead of only those who could get to the British Library.

Overall, I can’t see that this is anything but a fair deal which balances the cost of the digitisation with commercial rights, while allowing access to those who are likely to actually benefit the most, mainly academics. There’s no doubt that we have to be vigilant for those instances where big business tries to take something to which it is not entitled, but I can’t see that this is one of them.