Orphan Books

The New York Times reported this week that a federal judge in New York just effectively sidelined one of the most ambitious projects Google has ever attempted – of digitalizing “every book ever published.” This project, an attempt to make millions and millions of books searchable and widely available to computers across the US, was controversial to several influential groups, including the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The judge apparently agreed, believing it would have given Google a “de facto monopoly” and “the right to profit from books without the permission of copyright owners.

What we find more interesting than anything, however, is the fate of what the Times refers to as “orphan books”: out-of-print books that have been abandoned by their authors and publishers. This collective mass of millions and millions of books represents a valuable and important swath of literature and scholarship – centuries of learning and creativity, if you will – that will otherwise be lost or inaccessible to the larger public.

Even the judge in the case agrees that “the creation of a universal library would benefit many.” More broadly Google lawyer Alexander Macgillivray argues that “access to many of these hard-to-find books … is great for Google, great for authors, great for publishers and great for readers.”

Regardless of the legal and ethical issues, and regardless of the involved parties (be it the increasingly scary Google or some other organization), we think we can all agree that this would be a great (Utopian even? Idyllic?) resource. Some believe it should fall on Congress to handle making these orphan books accessible. Google, on the other hand, argues that they are the only organization capable of building such a library.

You can read all about the federal judge’s decision here or about the larger settlement and the “orphan books” case here.

Tell us, though: What do you think of the prospect of a comprehensive and searchable resource made up of every book ever published? Up to and including those books that have seemingly fallen through the cracks…

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