Orphan books are books whose authors and publishers have effectively abandoned them. They are out of print but still covered by copyright law and not in the public domain. University and other library collections contain large numbers of orphan books. Google is scanning and converting these orphan books to digital form as part of its project to create a vast book database. Last year Google settled a copyright-infringement lawsuit with a number of U.S. book publishers, agreeing to share book database licensing revenue with publishers in exchange for “virtually exclusive rights to publish the books online and to profit from them.” (“Google’s Plan for Out-of-Print Books is Challenged,” The New York Times, 03-Apr-2009) This concerns critics who fear that Google’s control over orphan books will limit the ability of others to develop competing databases, allowing Google to charge a premium for access to its database.
Google has scanned over 7 million books so far, at its own expense, and deserves financial reward for its investment and initiative. Publishing orphan books in digital form makes them available to a vastly larger audience than they enjoy today. Those two statements are incontestable, yet every silver lining has a cloud. When knowledge is power how much control over the world’s knowledge should one company have?