Google Book Search, Orphan Works and the Public Domain

Google Book Search has inspired passionate feelings and responses from many people since Google announced the project. Some, like Larry Lessig, view its scanning and indexing of copyrighted books as a legitimate activity under Fair Use. Others, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, are more skeptical of Google Book Search (and in Siva’s case, Google generally).

Either way, there’s no doubt that Google Book Search is a big deal. A key fact to keep in mind is one that Lessig makes repeatedly; namely, that

Google’s “Book Search service” aims to provide access to three kinds of published works: (1) works in the public domain, (2) works in copyright and in print, and (3) works in copyright but no longer in print. As some of you may recall from the presentation I made a while ago, about 16% of books are in category (1); 9% of books are in category (2), and 75% of books are in category (3).

And today there’s been a key advance in determining the often-difficult-to-divine status of whether some books are in category (1) or (3) – also courtesy Google:

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain. Estimates of how many books were renewed vary, but everyone agrees that most books weren’t renewed. If true, that means that the majority of U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963 are freely usable.

How do you find out whether a book was renewed? You have to check the U.S. Copyright Office records. Records from 1978 onward are online (see but not downloadable in bulk. The Copyright Office hasn’t digitized their earlier records, but Carnegie Mellon scanned them as part of their Universal Library Project, and the tireless folks at Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders painstakingly typed in every word.

Thanks to the efforts of Google software engineer Jarkko Hietaniemi, we’ve gathered the records from both sources, massaged them a bit for easier parsing, and combined them into a single XML file available for download here.

This is, whatever your other feelings are about Google Book Search more generally, a wonderful advance in public accessibility of information. The list of what books are in the public domain can and will be used not just by Google Book Search in its ongoing (and arguably proprietary) book-scanning project, but also by other efforts like Brewster Kahle’s Open Content Alliance. Google comes in for a lot of criticism, but it’s worth acknowledging those times when they follow through on their stated goal of “organizing the world’s information,” and this is one of them.

One of the great challenges/opportunities that we face with digital information is the interface with print and analog information. There’s a danger – implicitly addressed by Book Search and the OCA – that our great knowledge resources from the past are ignored or left to molder, and the difficulty of determining copyright status has been something of a hurdle to digitization efforts thusfar. Recency bias will always be with us, but the possibility of making the great (and undiscovered or underappreciated) works of the past just as accessible to tomorrow’s students as the latest blog post or journal article is a goal to work towards.

-Jacob Kramer-Duffield