Demise of Google Newspaper Archive Shows Need for National Digital Library Policy

by Irvin Muchnick on May 25, 2011

Google last week suspended its gargantuan project to scan and archive the historical content of all the world’s newspapers. The Boston Phoenix explained the development in detail.

A federal court has already thrown out the Google Books class-action settlement, which was negotiated by a publishers’ trade group and the sellout, private-spirited Authors Guild. Meanwhile, the world waits … and waits … and waits … for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on objections by myself and others to an even worse sellout – really, a giveaway – by three writers’ organizations to just about the entire periodicals industry. (The case was known at the Supreme Court as Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick when the justices last year kicked it back to lower courts for adjudication of the merits.)

Google’s abandonment of its newspaper archive plan is one more illustration of why the new publishing landscape needs clear information superhighway rules of the road.

I was actually a lot more sympathetic to Google’s work on the book deal and on newspaper and magazine scanning than were many of my fellow writers – at least the Mountain View Bigfoot was doing the job of collecting literature and journalism with a degree of competence and with some prospect of a real royalty system. But the collapse of the project reinforces the limits of self-appointed public utilities. Apparently, the newspaper archive wasn’t getting enough eyeballs to make the project profitable.

The problem with newspaper scans was not their legality, as the Phoenix pointed out: “It threaded a loophole for newspapers, who, in putting pre-internet archives online, generally would have had to sort out tricky rights issues with freelancers – but were thought to have escaped those obligations due to the method with which Google posted the archives. (Instead of posting the articles as pure text, Google posted searchable image files of the actual newspaper pages.)”

But at this juncture, don’t the interests of the public in constructively harnessing new technology – as well as those of independent creators in getting fairly paid for such exploitation – call for more than “threading the needle”?

Image scans, like library microfilm, are legal under copyright law. Individual article databases are not. Yet there is no significant difference as far as users are concerned. They (and we – writers, photographers, graphics artists, and videographers are users, too) would just like to have access, instead watching a few giant corporations hoard the historical record while they continue to tweak the best possible “business model” and figure out how to cut out everyone else.

For my own part, I have individual newspaper and magazine articles that are still getting ripped off by the print publishers and by the database companies to which the publishers, willfully, flagrantly, and defiantly, “licensed” the content. In the 2001 Tasini v. New York Times ruling, the Supreme Court clearly defined those practices as violations of the Copyright Act.

The industry then essentially thumbed its nose at the justices’ 7-2 vote, bought off the Authors Guild, the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors for fractions of pennies on the dollar, and tried to set up an outrageous mechanism whereby the few writers who submitted claims for peanut-shell settlements would bind the entire universe of journalists now and forevermore to giving the game away to the publishers. That was when we objectors, starting in 2005, said, “Not so fast.”

Pam Samuelson, the Berkeley professor who helped spearhead the Google Books objections, and I are in agreement that the moment has come for Congressional action on this issue. We can continue litigating till the cows come home, but the only winners in that process are the lawyers who bill by the hour and the deep-pocketed infringers who pay them to run out the clock.

Everyone knows there is a wonderful new information resource out there. As in the 19th century when the modern public library system emerged, and in the 20th century music industry when radio and recording equipment were born, newspaper, magazine, and book collections need comprehensive good-faith negotiations among the stakeholders. From the federal government, we need the compulsory licenses and royalty systems that will allow this system to reach its full promise.

Beyond Chron contributor Irvin Muchnick blogs about his case and related topics at

Filed under: Archive