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In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to the mechanical printing press, printing Bibles for mass consumption. The technology allowed for books and manuscripts — originally replicated by hand — to be printed at a much faster rate, thus spreading knowledge and helping to usher in the European Renaissance. Because information was easier to access, more people could benefit.

Why the European history lesson? Because Google has done a similar job.

Introduced in 2004, Google Books aimed to digitize books found in partner libraries, including the University of Michigan Library and the New York Public Library. Scanned books whose copyrights have expired — anything published before 1923 — would be offered in their full text online, while those still under copyright would be scanned, but would only show small snippets to those who were searching. John Ockerbloom, a computer scientist who does planning around digital libraries at Penn, also pointed out that Google Books would be able to take orphan books — those still under copyright but whose “owners” could not be found — and expose them to a wider audience.

Digitization is not unprecedented — libraries all over boast digital repositories. Closer to home, for instance, Penn Libraries has an extensive digital library with more than 54,000 digital journals, and adds thousands of articles each year, Joe Zucca, the Libraries’ director for Planning and Communication, told me. This collection has been growing since the 1990s, so it’s become quite extensive. However, most (if not all) of what’s found in the Penn collection was created for a digital platform.

The case of Google Books, however, was the first time that most of the digitized works were originally not published expressly for digital consumption. Works by Jane Austen and Mark Twain — authors who couldn’t even fathom the idea of a computer — can now be found in their entirety through Googling (A brief note: most of my understanding of the Google Books history is thanks to Zucca, Ockerbloom and Shawn Martin, the Scholarly Communications Librarian, who very patiently explained the ins and outs of this deal. I have a very limited understanding of the law, and haven’t even taken the LSATs yet).

The problem for Google came in 2005, when the Authors Guild and a group of large publishing companies brought a class-action suit and civil lawsuit, respectively, against the Internet giant, claiming the service violated the copyrights of the partially scanned books, which are not yet in the public domain. Google countered the books fell under what is considered fair use — that is to say, situations like educational settings, when it is alright to use material that is under copyright without the permission of authors or publishers.

The lawsuits raised philosophical questions, including what should be considered fair use and how revenue factors into this. A settlement, reached last year, completely ignored the fair-use issue question, and instead focused on one of revenue. Basically, Google agreed to pay a fee for the books it scanned, and go forward with selling access to copyrighted books for a fee.

Now, though, the settlement is under review for possible violation of anti-trust laws, as well as whether the class-action suit was even entirely representative. It’s a bit of a mess, actually.

What Google was doing however, I must applaud. More often than we like to admit, when it comes to research papers, accessibility and expediency are the keys to success. It’s undeniably easier to use a study or article found on the Internet rather than going to a library to search for a book. As more previously paperbound works are transferred to computer screens, the material will be more widely used. Finally, the Internet isn’t going away — these books will all be online sooner or later.

Google has the resources to broaden access to an unbelievably large number of literary works and we can only hope it keeps its eye on the possible public benefits as well as their own bottom line.

Arielle Kane is a College senior from Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Her e-mail address is

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