Google Offers Classics for Free

A new feature of the search engine's online book program makes out-of-copyright works available for downloading and printing

Take note, Joe College: It won't cut it anymore to say that the university bookstore has sold out all copies of Silas Marner. On Aug. 30, Google (GOOG) announced an escalation of its book program. Now, in addition to being able to search and read out-of-copyright works, you can download and print the complete text of such volumes free of charge.

Since the inception of its books initiative in December, 2004, Google has been scanning a range of books, including volumes submitted by publishers and others drawn from the library stacks, including the New York Public Library, Oxford University library, and the University of Michigan library. Google won't comment on the number of books scanned to date, but it has its eye on millions.

Questions about the legality of the library program linger. It sparked two copyright-infringement lawsuits last year, one filed by the Authors Guild and one by the Association of American Publishers on behalf of several of its members, including McGraw-Hill (MHP), publisher of Business Week (see, 10/20/05, "Google's Escalating Book Battle," and 9/26/05, "For Google, Another Stormy Chapter").


  I gave the new Google feature a quick trial run. A search for Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities produced more than 20 copies of the book, along with assorted study guides and some other titles that bear some similarity.

For books made available to Google via publishers—in this case, including editions from Oxford University Press, Penguin, and Dover—the viewer gets only a "limited preview" of a few pages. In other cases, where Google believes that a volume might be in copyright, but has no relationship with the publisher, Google provides an even more restricted "snippet view."

Ultimately, though, I found an edition that provided a "full view." In this instance, after reading Google's explanation of public domain books and usage guidelines, I was allowed to begin downloading a PDF version of the novel. The one I hit on was a treasure, a 1908 University Society publication that also included The Mystery of Edwin Drood and introductory comments by scholars of the day.


  Moreover, it came with Harvard College Library stamps and occasional underlining by an anonymous undergraduate of yore. (The best-of-times-worst-of-times era was especially notable, the student seemed to think, for being "so far, like the present period.")

Unfortunately, the volume's 717 pages were too much for McGraw-Hill's broadband: My connection timed out before I could download the book onto my hard drive. (Google spokesperson Megan Lamb says the 32.2-megabyte file is larger than most in their collection.)

Out-of-copyright volumes have long been the low-hanging fruit of book publishing—steady money-makers that require little in the way of author royalties. Legendary Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf once remarked that the riches from his backlist, or books more than two years old, were like "picking up gold from the sidewalk."


  Classics in particular, contribute significantly to the bottom lines of such mainstream publishers as Random House, a unit of Bertelsmann, and Penguin Group, part of Pearson (PSO). Even retailer Barnes & Noble (BKS) got into the arena in 2003 with the introduction of its low-priced Barnes & Noble Classics.

How will the Google program affect such companies? "It's certainly going to hurt a little bit, but I'd be surprised if it hurts very much," observes Drake McFeely, president of W.W. Norton, which publishes many classics. "We publish books quite inexpensively, providing a first-rate text for not a whole lot of money. For example, the Norton Anthology of English Literature costs students about two cents per page."

Peter Gale Nelson, assistant director of Brown University's creative writing program, also questions the economic impact. "It may be less expensive to buy a printed version than to pay the cost of toner and paper." The Google mechanism, he added, "could be most useful for a book that's hard to find, one where this is the only way to get it." Nelson noted another strong suit of print books: Professors often assign specific editions so that everyone in class will be able to "turn to page 87" and land on the same passage.

But even so, if Joe College's pocketbook is experiencing the worst of times, a free Google copy may seem like just the ticket.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.