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Harvard Prof Proposes Free 'Google Books'04:21
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(Paul Lowry/Flickr)
(Paul Lowry/Flickr)

Everyone hates overdue library fees. But what if you could return your book without even leaving your computer chair?

That would be possible if you borrowed the book from the Digital Library of America. It doesn't exist yet, but there's a movement to create it.

Prof. Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University library, wants to digitize millions of books and create a nonprofit digital library that users all over the world could access.

“I think that the cultural heritage of this country belongs to the people of this country and it should be made available free of charge," Darnton said.

Google has already begun work on creating a giant digital library, but a federal judge in New York struck down a settlement that would have allowed the company to offer every book ever written online through its Google Books service. Google had planned to offer some books for free, but most for a price.

The Google settlement was an intricate spider's web of deals between authors, publishers and libraries that would have governed the distribution of profits from Google's service. Darnton's digital library, on the other hand, wouldn't be run for a profit. Still, it would face many of the same legal pitfalls.

“I think that the cultural heritage of this country belongs to the people of this country and it should be made available free of charge."

Robert Darnton

"A digital library could broadcast hundreds of copies of a single work to readers all over not just the U.S., but the world," Darnton said. "And in that case, there is really a problem of finding fair compensation for authors."

Darnton is still working out compensation details in his plan, but his library would start with books that are already in the public domain and so-called "orphaned books" whose copyright holders can't be identified.

"What that future digital public library needs is protection against litigation," Darnton said. "We want to be able to digitize and not get sued for infringement of copyright."

Congress, Darnton said, would have to craft legislation protecting the project if it were to succeed.

With Google's book project stalled, Darnton and America's public libraries might be the best hope for those of us with late fee problems.

Guest:

  • Robert Darnton, history professor, Harvard University; director, Harvard University Library

This segment aired on April 6, 2011.

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