In describing books, the Scottish-American classicist Gilbert Arthur Highet once wrote, “These are not lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.” In a world in which students consult not shelves but keyboards, too many of those lively minds remain out of sight, exiled to those shelves, where, every year, there is a virtual conflagration not unlike the fire at the ancient library at Alexandria, as last copies of precious books crumble slowly to dust, or are damaged, stolen, or lost.
What once seemed at least debatable has now become irrefutable: If it’s not online, it’s invisible. While increasing numbers of long-out-of-date, public-domain books are now fully and freely available to anyone with a browser, the vast majority of the scholarship published in book form over the last 80 years is today largely overlooked by students, who limit their research to what can be discovered on the Internet… [T]he vast majority of the scholarship published since 1923 (the date before which titles are in the public domain in the United States) is now effectively out of reach to the modern student….
It has taken many months for the import of the [Google Book] settlement to become clear. It is exceedingly complex, and its design — the result of two years of negotiations, including not just the parties but libraries as well — is, not surprisingly, imperfect. It can and should be improved. But after long months of grappling with it, what has become clear to us is that it is a remarkable and remarkably ambitious achievement.
It provides a means whereby those lost books of the last century can be brought back to life and made searchable, discoverable, and citable. That aim aligns seamlessly with the aims of a university press. It is good for readers, authors, and publishers — and, yes, for Google. If it succeeds, readers will gain access to an unprecedented amount of previously lost material, publishers will get to disseminate their work — and earn a return from their past investments — and authors will find new readers (and royalties). If it fails, the majority of lost books will be unlikely ever to see the light of day, which would constitute an enormous setback for scholarly communication and education.
The settlement is a step forward in solving the problem of “orphan works,” titles that are in copyright but whose copyright holders are elusive, meaning that no rightsholder can be found to grant permission for a title’s use. For such books, a professor cannot include a chapter in a course pack for students; a publisher cannot include an excerpt in an anthology; and no one can offer a print or an electronic copy for sale. Making those books available again is a clear public good. Google’s having exclusive rights to use them, as enshrined in the current settlement, however, is not….
First and foremost, the settlement is about discovery: a basic restoration of books to our literary landscape that enables readers to find what they once would have missed… Many publishers will not have the mission nor the means to overcome the formidable obstacles involved in giving their print backlists an online life. But whether the lost scholarship is made available through the settlement or also through the activities of publishers, the means may be different, but the end is the same. The settlement gets authors, readers, and publishers farther and faster than if we had been left solely to our own devices….
To be clear, as noted above, the settlement is certainly not perfect and the solution to dealing with orphan works is particularly problematic: Google should not have the exclusive ability to exploit those works, and further refinement is needed to ensure that the Book Rights Registry can license those titles to others besides Google. Yet it also seems more likely that orphan-works legislation will be forthcoming if the settlement goes ahead. And it is important that all of the participants to the settlement, and especially Google, should now publicly commit themselves to supporting the needed new legislation in meaningful ways. We may also find the orphan-works issue diminishing in scale over time, as rightsholders come forward, should the program be successful….
We cannot now predict all of the places where the settlement will take us, which should make us understandably cautious. But even as we debate the important issues surrounding it, we must not shirk our responsibility to take forward-thinking, tangible steps now — today — by conjuring perilous futures and retreating to the safety of inaction and paralysis….
So we at Oxford University Press support the settlement, even as we recognize its imperfections and want it made better. As Voltaire said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” the perfect is the enemy of the good. Let us not waste an opportunity to create so much good. Let us work together to solve the imperfections of the settlement. Let us work together to give students, scholars, and readers access to the written wisdom of previous generations. Let us keep those minds alive.