Friday, June 06, 2008

Covers from Google: Too good to be true?

I created this cover (well except for van Gogh's contribution). You may use it!
A few months ago when the Google Book Search API came out, I was among the first notice that GBS covers could be used to deck-out library catalogs (OPACs) with covers, potentially bypassing other providers, like Amazon and Syndetics. I subsequently promoted the idea loudly on a Talis podcast, where a Google representative ducked licensing questions, giving what seemed like tacit approval.

It seemed so great--free covers for all. Unfortunately, it now seems that it was too good to be true. At a minimum, the whole thing is thrown into confusion.

After some delay, Google has now posted--for the first time--a "Terms of Use" for the Google Book Search API ( If you're planning to use GBS data, you should be sure to read it.

The back story is an interesting one. Soon after I wrote and spoke about the covers opportunity, a major cover supplier contacted me. They were miffed at me, and at Google. Apparently a large percentage of the Google covers were, in fact, licensed to Google by them. They never intended this to be a "back door" to their covers, undermining their core business. It was up to Google to protect their content appropriately, something they did not do. For starters, the GBS API appears to have gone live without any Terms of Service beyond the site-wide ones. The new Terms of Service is, I gather, the fruit of this situation.

Now, I am not a lawyer and I am not a reporter. I don't know who, if anyone, messed up. Nor do I fully understand what the new Terms of Service requires or allows. Although I am told they put the kibosh on using GBS as a replacement for other cover providers, I can't find a straightforward prohibition on using GBS for covers, primarily or secondarily. But it starts out with the statement that:
"The Google Book Search API is not intended to be a substitute or replacement of products or services of any third party content provider."
And there are other concerning clauses. There is a vague bullet about not posting content that infringes any other parties' "proprietary rights." And there are clauses that should give pause to many on the library-tech listservs--about not reordering results, not crawling, not caching, and so forth.

My interest in free data is well known. I think the days of selling covers—something publishers give out for free—are passing away. But if this happens, it must be done fairly. Those who provide proprietary data should be able to protect it, at least as far the law allows them to. (Since no data suppier can "copyright" their cover images, any restrictions must be based in licenses.*) Those of us who argue for free data** must respect this. That's the difference between "free as in freedom" and "free as in 'fell of a truck.'"

Meanwhile, being among the most vocal proponents of using GBS for covers—and having no idea the covers' weren't Google's to do with what they pleased—I have been asked to sensitize librarians that "some of this content is licensed and they need to be respectful of infringement issues."

So, that's the word. Now if I only understood it.

*And, I gather, there is some doubt about "posted" licenses on publicly-available websites, as opposed to licenses that require explicit agreement. By the way, did you know that, by reading this, you've agreed to dance on the table like a damn fool next time you hear the Gypsy Kings? Do not disregard this license. We'll know.
**At least those who believe in the right of contract or property.

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Blogger Amanda Ellis said...

Interesting wording by Google. "Is not intended to be a substitute or replacement," is not the same as saying should not be used as a replacement.

Presumably the API does more than just serve covers. You can also search books, right?

Maybe Google can rely on the legal argument in the Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. case, that because the technology can be used for a legal purpose (book search) they are not liable for unauthorised use (of the cover supplier's intellectual property)??

I'm not a lawyer, but it would be interesting to see ones take on this.

6/06/2008 6:25 PM  
Blogger John Miedema said...

Hi Tim, I hope I am not causing anyone any further trouble with book cover images, but I just released a beta WordPress plugin that scoops bookdata including book cover images from OpenLibrary. (I'll implicate you -- a conversation with you several months ago inspired my hacker talents in this area.) My only knowledge about copyright on this is that many book publishers are eager to distribute images if it promotes their book.

For anyone who is interested, the plugin should be available anyday now from the WordPress server:

6/06/2008 11:07 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

I find it kind of interesting that Google's ToS has prompted a mention, but Amazon's recent alteration to their AWS customer agreement explicitly forbidding its use for anything other than driving Amazon sales (section 5.1.3) wasn't newsworthy, somehow.

I think it's early days (unfortunately!) regarding Free access to stuff like book covers and associated data retrieval... I don't think anyone can be expected to get it right the first time (since when does that happen in IT, or anywhere?)

So sure, thanks for the heads up on this recent development, but there is worse stuff going on than this - perhaps some perspective is required?

6/07/2008 5:20 AM  
Blogger JLH said...

Yea, Tim! Fight the good fight!Fight fiercely! Covers sould be free. I'll be listening. Thanks.

6/07/2008 10:44 PM  
Blogger Melinda said...

bah. so much for my presentation at ALA about how we implemented the Google API into our catalog...

6/08/2008 10:00 AM  

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