In Free Our Libraries, a paper commissioned by the Boston Library Consortium, Richard K. Johnson argues that a “momentous, ill-considered shift is now afoot that threatens to limit the public rights in the collections assembled and maintained, often at public expense, in libraries around the globe.” This threat comes in the form of mass digitization projects undertaken by businesses (especially Google) in collaboration with libraries.
Johnson argues that barriers to the use of books digitized by corporate entities (especially Google) represents an abandonment of the promise of public domain. According to Johnson, the problem lies in the restrictions businesses place on access to the content they scan — restrictions on discovery, use, re-use, etc.
The crux of the argument is that “as timber companies don’t get a free pass to exploit our National Forests, strong protections for public interest must be a part of all agreements for businesses to exploit library collections”. Of course, the flaw with this argument is that no books are destroyed when Google scans them. The public domain rights to the physical book remain in tact. The public loses nothing when Google scans a book (and gains access to the scanned text, however imperfect that access may be). From what I can understand, Johnson and others would argue that the public loses the possibility of some other, presumably more open scanning project that the Google deal renders unlikely. There are too many assumptions in that argument for me to be convinced that projects like Google Books represent “an assault on the public’s right to knowledge.”