Robert Darnton

Google’s Loss: The Public’s Gain

VTR Date: October 1, 2011

Harvard Historian Robert Darnton discusses the Google Books Library Project.


GUEST: Robert Darnton
VTR: 06/02/11

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And if you have been following The New York Review of Books over the past few years, you’ll be quite familiar with today’s guest and with his valiant crusade for the creation of a massive international digital public library … one based not on commerce and profit, but rather on Thomas Jefferson’s formulation that “Knowledge is the common property of mankind”.

Historian Robert Darnton is Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library. Former President of the American Historical Association, the history of the book is my guest’s field of specialization … and his mission now would seem to be not only the book’s preservation in the great research libraries of our country and of the world, but its easy circulation for everyone everywhere in this digital age of the Internet.

Why, then – one must ask Dr. Darnton – his rejoicing that, as the Wall Street Journal had it recently, “Google Inc.’s six-year struggle to bring all the world’s books to the Internet has suffered another big setback at the hands of a federal judge”? Why another New York Review of Books article by my guest titled: “Google’s Loss: The Public’s Gain”? Is that a fair question?

DARNTON: (Laugh) It’s a fair question. You know I shouldn’t present myself as David fighting Goliath, although people sometimes make that comparison.

I shouldn’t take myself too seriously and furthermore, I should admit to a great admiration for Google. Google has fabulous engineers … they, they have chutzpah … they have the daring to try to digitize millions and millions of books and make them available. So, in a way I’m all admiration for Google. But …

HEFFNER: What’s that?

DARNTON: And there’s a big “But” …. You saw it coming … they basically work to commercialize access to knowledge. And what the price was going to be was very unclear.

Essentially they came to us in the library world and said, “Let us digitize your books. And then we will let you buy back access to the … your own books for a price” …which remained to be determined, basically by Google.

It was not exactly a deal that was in the interests of the general reading public. Our job as librarians is to make books accessible to readers for free.

So, Google’s ambition was magnificent … but it’s fundamental commercial nature, I think, undercut that ambition. And therefore, we needed an alternative.

And that alternative is what you mentioned, a digital public library of America. A kind of library that will have millions and millions of books. More than in the Library of Congress, which has 30 million volumes. More than have ever existed in any library.

But to make them accessible, free on charge, online to the American people.

HEFFNER: But Dr. Darnton that sort of reminds me of that old story about the Lady of the Night … when she was talking about price … not principle. Are you suggesting that if the price were right, you would not be as concerned about Google’s involvement?

DARNTON: Well, when I originally read the so-called “settlement” that’s a very complicated legal document that was to resolve a legal dispute on the one hand Google, on the other hand the Author’s Guild, the Association of American Publishers who sued Google for infringement of copyright.

When I read the settlement I thought “there are no limits as to the price that could be charged.”

Furthermore, there are lots of other difficulties. Basically it set up a monopolistic control of all kinds of books that were out of print, but in copyright … in, including so-called “orphan” books … it gets complicated there.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by “orphan” books?

DARNTON: Well an “orphan” book is a book that is covered by copyright, out of print … as, as a rule. But who’s copyright owner cannot be identified, or has not yet been identified.

Now this may sound arcane, but estimates of the … the number of orphan books vary from 2.5 million to 5 million titles. This is a vast corpus of literature of all kinds.

So it’s crucial that orphan books be made available to people in such a way that if the copyright owner comes forward … is identified … that copyright owner can’t sue the entity that’s making the book available. Google or the National Digital Public Library of America.

In other words, you need protection against litigation. And that’s part of this very complicated lawsuit that was … came before the Federal District Court in New York and was resolved by the rejection of this document called “The Settlement”. Now I think that was a good thing, actually.

HEFFNER: The rejection?

DARNTON: Exactly. I think it was a good thing for the public … maybe in the long run, it will even be a good thing for Google because Google did not begin by trying to create a commercial library and a commercial book business.

That evolved in the course of the negotiations with the copyright owners. Well, now that those negotiations have been declared … if not illegal … anyhow … not, not agreeable to the court … something else has to happen.

And I think that Google has a lot to contribute, so I would hope that if we … we are going to create this digital library … I would hope that Google would find it in its interest, actually, to cooperate.

HEFFNER: How do you explain the fact that many university libraries or a considerable number of major libraries did go along with the Google plan?

DARNTON: Well, they were attracted by the basic principle of making books accessible to the public. They were not as obsessed as I was by the danger of exorbitant pricing. So we disagreed about that … and many of my colleagues said to me “Don’t worry about exorbitant pricing because the market will take care of that danger”.

HEFFNER: What market? There wouldn’t be any competition would there be?

DARNTON: Exactly. That’s what I (laugh) … was my reply. There wouldn’t be competition. And furthermore, there … it’s not a supply and demand kind of mechanism. Because there’s no competition, Google book search could charge any price it wanted.

And we in the world of libraries have become worried by what we call “cocaine” pricing. That is, they could set the price of access to this great digital database of books at a low level. And then when the users get hooked on it, they could ratchet it up gradually until it became unbearable.

This has happened to us in the world of libraries with the price of scholarly journals.

There is one scholarly journal Tetrahedron which costs $39,000 a year for one subscription. The publishers of these journals basically charge any price they want. And the price increase in journals has been crippling to libraries. This could happen with Google book search.

Google says, “Trust us, believe it our motto ‘Do No Evil’”. Well, I, I, I know the Googlers … I think they’re wonderful people. Young engineers who want to get on with things, digitize books, make them accessible. I mean they’re full of energy and intelligence. But, who is going to own Google five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty years from now?

I think it’s very possible that less public spirited people could take over Google and just milk it for money at the, at the expense of the public.

So this … these libraries … their assets are a public “good” and I think they need to be made accessible to the public free of charge.

But I haven’t answered your question about the lady of the night … I don’t actually identify libraries with ladies of the night (smile), but I see your point.

And people often say to me, “This sounds like the utopian fantasy of some college professor”. Well, it was a utopian fantasy in the days of Jefferson.

The Founding Fathers believed that access to knowledge, the printed word would be a great liberating force. And if the public were not educated, you couldn’t really make democracy work. I think they were right.

It’s not an unusual view, but, of course, in those days with limited literacy and access to books and so on … there was a kind of utopian quality to this thinking.

Especially in the case of Condorcet in France, whose thought that literacy, reading, writing would be the great engine of progress. Well, that was not the case. Not exactly the case.

In the modern world the Internet does make that earlier enlightenment fantasy possible. But I still haven’t answered your question … how can we pay for it?

HEFFNER: Indeed.

DARNTON: Well, on October 1st, last year … I invited a group of leaders of great foundations, computer scientists, leaders of the great cultural institutions of Washington, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Humanities … to come together at a meeting in Harvard and discuss the possibility of creating this, this entity that seemed like a dream.

HEFFNER: This public good institution.

DARNTON: That’s right. And at that time we called it A Digital Library of America.

Well, we had a day and a half of debate. We looked at all aspects of the problem, there are lots of them. But within 30 minutes everyone agreed that we could pay for it, we could raise the money. It was such an important thing that we would create a coalition of foundations and each foundation would chip in enough money to get the thing up and running.

Now, how much would it cost? We had various estimates. It’s hard to estimate something like this, but we had examples of similar attempts in other countries.

In fact we did research on 21 digital libraries that have been created all over … Japan … the best one is probably Norway … there’s an excellent program in the Netherlands and then there’s Europeana which is an attempt to create a Europe-wide digital library, free of charge.

So we have a pretty good idea of how this could be done. It’s not as if the Europeans have yet succeeded in doing it. But they’ve succeeded in getting a good start.

HEFFNER: But didn’t the agreement that was rejected, for the moment, by the Federal Court, didn’t the agreement involve two sides of that equation where there needs to be a third … that you represent … the public. But those two other sides … one Google, in this instance and the other … the authors, the writers who also want a piece of the pie. Now, you’re not going to have any control over that, are you? The piece of the pie that go to the creative people?

DARNTON: Well the pie itself won’t exist if the settlement is not accepted by the Courts …


DARNTON: This is a legal question. It gets a little complicated because it’s a class action suit and the first duty of the Judge, Judge Chin … was to see if the Author’s Guild and the Publishers truly represented the class of copyright owners.

Well, do they? You maybe a member of the Author’s Guild, yourself as an author. There are 8,000 members of the Author’s Guild, but there are well over 100,000 people alive today who’ve published a book. So Judge Chin had doubts about the representativeness of the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

But independently of that … the … when we go to create and we are creating this … we call it DPLA … Digital Public Library of America … we will respect copyright.

We do not want to undercut the legitimate interests of authors in an income from works they have created.

So how can we do that? Well, basically, two ways. I mentioned orphan books …


DARNTON: … we need orphan book legislation from Congress. There have been two attempts to do this already in 2006, 2008 … they almost got through Congress, but then Congress had to adjourn and get re-elected. And people in Congress said, “Google’s taking care of it. Why worry?”

Well, Google’s no longer taking care of it. We do need to worry. So we need orphan book legislation and I think that’s very do-able. There’s no interest that will be violated in passing such legislation.

HEFFNER: But isn’t there still some basic conflict … let me use that …


HEFFNER: … conflict of interest … concept here. You’re … as a librarian, as the Librarian of Harvard, as a man for whom books have always been the basis of your studies, the basis of your scholarship … you want the Jeffersonian notion to be realized in real life.

You want me to be able to have free access to all of these works. What about the creators? You still haven’t answered that.


HEFFNER: You’ve said that the Guild’s represent a tiny, tiny percentage of the people who create, who write.


HEFFNER: Well, what about the people who do create?

DARNTON: Well, I, I respect that … I mean …

HEFFNER: What are you going to do about it?

DARNTON: Well, I’ll tell you. I mean this is just a proposal. Everything is taking shape. We, we don’t have a finished model yet to present. Although we will present one soon, maybe next October.

So what will we do about this? One, we must respect copyright. Two, we can deal with books published actually between 1923 and ’64 … that’s the era of the orphan books.


DARNTON: That’s not a great problem. But, what about current books or books that were published 10, 20 years ago and that are still covered by copyright. We must respect the copyrights and so we need to find it an arrangement that will give the authors a legitimate return on the use of those books.

Now there are different ways you can do it. One is to create a pool of money and to give them, in effect, royalties for the use of their books.

A second one is to create a collective entity and there’s an elaborate legal formula for doing this. It’s called an “extended collective licensing agreement”.

That means you could have many writers whose books are no longer selling at all … sitting unread in remote shelves of libraries …persuade these authors to make the books available free of charge … it’s in their interest.

At that point they’re no longer deriving income from them.


DARNTON: They want readers.

HEFFNER: You’ve indicated in one of your writings that many such people have indicated …


HEFFNER: … that they would like this …


HEFFNER: … they, they would rather be read than not read, they want their ideas …


HEFFNER: … to be disseminated.

DARNTON: That’s exactly the case. The Norwegians have already done it. Now you may say to me, “Well, the number of books available in Norwegian is rather smaller than the number available in English. I grant you that.

But this would be a voluntary program and I think that we can build up momentum to get many authors to cooperate. Those who want … don’t want to cooperate and want income from their books, would be given such an income.

But believe me if you’ve published a book thirty years ago, the income from the occasional reading of that book is going to be rather small.

So I don’t really think it’s an insuperable problem except for current books. Now the DPLA … those of us who are trying to organize it, haven’t yet reached a decision about how close to the contemporary market we want to come.

Some would say “Make everything available”, including books published yesterday. Others would say, “Let’s have a moving wall, so that we won’t publish any books … ah, make available any books that were published five years ago or ten years ago because we don’t want to interfere with the contemporary market, which is where the money is to be made by authors.

And then it would be a moving wall because each year it would get … more and more books would become available. Something … some arrangement like that is quite feasible.

HEFFNER: What puzzles me is DPLA … why isn’t “A” … “W”, not of America, but of the world.

DARNTON: It should be of the world and it will be for the world and we’re working on it. How … well … ahemm, we have extensive conversations with Europeana which is this attempt to create a similar digital public library for all of Europe.

And we’ve had conversations with heads of libraries in individual European countries. And we’re all agreed that we need to cooperate. Cooperation isn’t difficult because it’s a matter of designing the right technical infrastructure.

Sounds fancy, but my computer scientist friends say it’s do-able. This is not rocket science. We can design all kinds of codes so that books will … in American libraries that have been digitized will be immediately accessible to readers in China, in Africa, in Europe, without … with a click of the switch.

HEFFNER: And you’re talking about the ability to download.


HEFFNER: To print out.


HEFFNER: And to build your own library.

DARNTON: That’s correct. That’s correct.

HEFFNER: Now, how do you deal with the … that’s funny I was going to say … use the word “accusation”, but … because I don’t mean accusation in it’s usual sense.

How do you deal with the congratulatory notion that you are a Utopian in this?

DARNTON: Well, actually there’s a lot to be said for Utopianism. I think the Founding Fathers were Utopians. And the Progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment were Utopians. We need a dose of Utopianism in this hard-headed world of lobbies and conflicting interests and so on. Another word might be idealism or dedication to principles.

But my point is although this is, I think, a principle that goes back to the founding of this country to the first Article in the Constitution, to the first copyright law of 1790, to the writings of Jefferson and Madison and Benjamin Franklin … you find it everywhere at the origins of the American Republic, this principle that the public should have access to knowledge.

HEFFNER: It interests me so much because I was thinking as I read you … about Andrew Carnegie, one may think of him as a robber baron, but one thinks of him most importantly with his creation of public libraries …


HEFFNER: … so that we might have the access that you’re talking about.

DARNTON: That’s right. And I think Carnegie’s ideal was a wonderful ideal. And you know it happened not through the State, but through private initiative. And that’s what we intend to do. We are not going to go to Congress and ask for a penny.

We want progressive legislation about orphan books and that sort of thing, sure. But this is something that will express what we have in America that is unique and hardly exists outside of this country, and that is public spirited foundations.

I think our tradition of foundations who use their wealth for the public good is a marvelous thing. And the, the leaders of foundations have recognized that this idea is so important that they’re willing to band together and to make it happen, financially

HEFFNER: May I ask you … because we, we have comparatively little time left. Do something for me that I don’t often ask my guests … take the other side, whatever that means.

Do you see criticisms of what you’re offering now that you feel are valid?

DARNTON: Yes, there’s one actually that worries me. And that sometimes comes from the world of public libraries. And they say, “if you pretend to be a public library, for America, maybe that will undercut the funding of public libraries all over the country.”

My answer to that is this great digital library will like a backroom, a digital backroom to your small town public library or city neighborhood library. It will give all the citizens access to the entirety of literature in all fields.

But, it’s not going to provide them with the current best seller, the current DVD, the sorts of things that most people go to libraries for … aside from the services of libraries which are very important.

So we want to get across the idea that in calling it a Digital Public Library of America we’re not going to be a substitute for the traditional public libraries and there’s a danger of misunderstanding on that front.

HEFFNER: Perhaps, but I think of you as the head of perhaps the most distinguished university library in the country. You’re Harvard’s University Librarian.

What about the great research institutions, is there no danger in this for them?

DARNTON: No, I think it’s a great opportunity for them. My central policy as the leader of Harvard’s Library is to open it up, to make it’s intellectual wealth available to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

Harvard University Library is the greatest university library in the world. 17,000 million volumes, special collections of all sorts. It’s fabulous for the students and faculty of Harvard, but I think we must think of it not just as a Harvard asset, but as a national asset. And we can, indeed, open it up through digitization to the rest of the world.

So I feel that’s part of the mission of Harvard is to reach out to the American people and not to turn in on itself. And in fact, that’s really, I think what the current administration of Harvard is doing. In, in being a great library we are great for the rest of the country. And this is true of other great libraries as well. So if we can band together, it’s something that will matter for ordinary people.

Another objection is they say, “Oh, this elitist. You’re thinking of a library for other researchers and college professors”. That’s not the case at all. There … this will be a library for K to 12 schools, for community colleges, for individuals who want access to books.

There are all kinds of people in this country who are thinking of writing a history of their local town. Or have some idea and need resources to … for, for research. So, it’s not an elitist plan that will please college professors, it’s something that will make the entirety of our cultural heritage available to all of the people.

HEFFNER: Dr. Darnton, as we reach the end of our program I am grateful to you for expressing this idealism even if I have my own questions about … shall I be vulgar and talk about “spitting against the wind” in American society. Thank you for joining me. And stay where you are so we can still another program.

DARNTON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.