Small-time author blasts Google-UW digital book project

2009-07-26T13:25:00Z Small-time author blasts Google-UW digital book project madison.com
July 26, 2009 1:25 pm

By TODD FINKELMEYER

The Capital Times

Douglas Fevens is the first to admit he has little chance of altering the business practices of Internet giant Google.

This isn't a David vs. Goliath kind of mismatch.

Think more gnat vs. oncoming Mack truck.

"I realize I can't do a whole lot, but I'm not going to just sit here and do nothing, either. I'm going to make my voice heard," said Fevens.

In particular, Fevens is not a fan of the Google library project, an effort initiated in December 2004 to digitize and index the world's texts so people can view resources that they generally wouldn't be able to track down in other ways.

Proponents like Edward Van Gemert, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's associate director of University Libraries, told the Cap Times last fall that the project "has the potential of fundamentally changing how people acquire information."

UW-Madison joined the Google project in 2006, and it is now one of more than a dozen major institutions around the world that are a part of it, including Harvard University and the New York Public Library. To date, UW-Madison has digitized about 200,000 works from University Libraries and the Wisconsin Historical Society - including a 177-page book Fevens authored and owns the copyright to: "Fevens, a family history."

The 55-year-old unemployed carpenter, lobster fisherman and jack-of-all-trades living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, stumbled across his work in the Google book archives on May 13 while poking around the Internet.

According to Fevens, the Google book search indicated that the online copy of "Fevens, a family history" had been scanned from UW-Madison's archives.

Although the whole book wasn't available online - only a few lines of text, or what Google calls "snippets," were shown - Fevens was nonetheless outraged.

"No one informed me they were going to be scanning my book in," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "It was copyright infringement. And like plagiarism, there is no 'a little bit' wrong. This is not right. Most universities of the world teach their students about copyright infringement."

Fevens can be over-the-top in his rhetoric on the topic. A letter to the editor of The Cap Times in June compared copyright infringement to waterboarding torture techniques, but he is by no means the only one questioning the Google project.

Shortly after it began, the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers filed lawsuits in 2005 due to concerns over copyright infringements.

To the surprise of many observers, Google reached a proposed $125 million settlement with these groups in October when it agreed to pay authors and publishers for the right to scan and offer the books online to individuals and libraries for money.

The Google settlement makes $45 million available to use in payments to authors and publishers of books that Google scanned and digitized before May 5, 2009, without permission. Each author would receive a minimum of $60 per book to allow Google to keep the publication in its book registry. The deadline to stake a claim to the minimum of $60 is Jan. 5. The deadline for a rights-holder who wants to opt out of this settlement is Sept. 4.

The Google settlement also says copyright holders can remove books from the library project if the request is received by April 5, 2011. After that, the company will only honor "do not digitize" requests if it hasn't already digitized the book.

"Think about that," Fevens said. "If I hadn't stumbled across this information, by April 5, 2011, Google would have had the digital rights to my book."

Another $34.5 million of the proposed settlement would go to establish a Book Rights Registry, an independent group that would be in charge of giving copyright holders a slice of the future online revenue generated by their work. The remaining $45 million is for legal fees.

Authors Guild President Roy Blount Jr. has praised the settlement, but the U.S. Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation. In general, critics are afraid the agreement gives Google too much power in the digital book world. A fairness hearing to decide whether or not the settlement should be finalized is set for Oct. 7.

To date, Google now has digitized more than seven million books, according to published reports. Roughly 1 million of those are in the public domain (those published before 1923), 2.5 million are under current copyright and in-print (available for purchase in the U.S.), and 3.5 million are under current copyright but out-of-print (books such as Fevens', which were never widely sold).

Irene Zimmerman, UW-Madison's head of the cataloguing department and the project manager for the Google initiative, said one or two other people have contacted UW-Madison to express concerns like Fevens' about copyright violations and the Google library project, but added that "we were able to work through any problems with them to their satisfaction."

Zimmerman also said "we've had other individuals who have had family members write books who have asked us if we can put more information online." For such books in the public domain, those published before 1923, complete copies already are available. But for those published since, only "snippets" can be found online.

"But even if you see the 'snippet' and live far away, that can still help you determine whether you want to spend the time and energy to come down and look at it in person," Zimmerman said.

Interestingly, Fevens says he has no idea how a copy of "Fevens, a family history" ended up in the stacks at the Historical Society Library.

The 177-page work is well-researched and contains stories about Fevens' ancestors, maps and photos from the past, and a detailed genealogy of the family. The index contains the names of more than 1,000 people contained in the book.

"I had been doing research on my own to find out where we came from, and after I had quite a bit of information put together, I just said to Mom, 'Would you like to publish this for me?' " said Fevens.

So it was published privately in 2004 by Fevens' mother, Phyllis, and only 200 copies were printed - with most going to family and friends. He registered the copyrights with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

Fevens delivered a handful of his books to several libraries in eastern Canada, while the WorldCat catalog also indicates there are copies in the Toronto Public Library, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.

Although Fevens says it's possible a family member donated the book to UW-Madison or the Wisconsin Historical Society, he said he did sell four copies to Coutts Library Services Canada, which is a leading international supplier of books to academic, medical, professional and reference libraries.

The Wisconsin Historical Society also couldn't immediately figure out how it acquired the book, but knows it did so in December 2004.

At first, UW-Madison's digitization focus was on public domain materials from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it also digitized its entire collection of genealogical materials for the Wisconsin Historical Society, and that widely used collection is now searchable online. This family history collection is non-circulating - which means the actual books can't be checked out and must be viewed at the Historical Society Library.

"So because it's digitized, individuals up north can search from their living room to do research rather than having to come to Madison to use the materials," Zimmerman said. "So that's one reason we think this project is so exciting."

When asked if the university had any concerns about scanning copyrighted works as part of the Google library project, Nancy Lynch, the senior legal counsel for UW-Madison, e-mailed: "We have been, and remain, comfortable with our role in the project."

Fevens is not, even though snippets of his book are no longer available online.

Shortly after his discovery in May, he sent a certified letter to Google asking that the virtual volume of his book be destroyed. Within days, it was no longer displayed in the Google library.

Part of his alarm was because he had promised some family members who contributed to the vast genealogy section of his book that their personal information would not be permanently stored electronically.

"So you can imagine how upsetting it was to find the names and birth dates of many living relatives easily available on a Google search," he said.

But even after getting his book removed from Google's archive, Fevens sent UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin an e-mail seeking a statement from the university verifying that all the digital copies of the book had been destroyed. He also wanted a written apology for the UW's role in digitizing a copyrighted book and threatened legal action if he didn't get one.

The university called his bluff, and he said in the interview that he isn't going to spend big bucks in legal fees just to get an "I'm sorry" out of the university.

Yet the gnat isn't ready to stop buzzing around the ears of the folks at Google or UW-Madison just yet, either.

"I don't know what to do next, really," said Fevens. "If I hadn't said anything or pressed on, Google and the university weren't going to take down my book. The university didn't even seem concerned when I brought it to their attention. So even though there's not a whole lot I can do, I'm going to continue to voice my complaints and keep writing letters. I just think it's wrong for Google and the university to be digitizing copyrighted work."

tfinkelmeyer@madison.com

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