Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Google the usurper

Interesting editorial about Google's controversial book-scanning project.

Note: Post revised after the author rightfully kvetched. (Poor word choice on my part; I do need an editor.) Too bad Last gets my name wrong on his blog. Neither party is looking very good with this one...
The legal problems lie with the Library Project. Copyright has its foundations in English law and the Licensing Act of 1662. The falling costs of printing had created rampant book piracy in England. Concerned that such behavior would blunt creativity and harm the book business, Charles II established a register of licensed books to protect authors and publishers. A hundred years later, the copyright was the only right the Founding Fathers gauged important enough to recognize explicitly in the Constitution itself. In the intervening years, it has evolved somewhat. Today, works published before 1923 are generally in the public domain. There are exceptions and complexities, but works published after 1978 are protected by copyright for 70 years from the author's death. As for works published between 1923 and 1978, they were given an original copyright protection of 28 years from first publication and another 67 years of protection upon renewal of the copyright. Got that?

And here lies Google's dilemma: Out-of-copyright books account for about one-sixth of all titles. Most books--75 percent of them--are in copyright, but out of print. Only about 10 percent of all books are both copyrighted and in print. Google has decided to get around this problem of copyright protection by simply ignoring it: forging ahead and scanning books, regardless of their copyright status. If a book is in the public domain, its full text is displayed to users, but if the book is protected, then Google shows users only a "snippet" of the text surrounding the search result. It is relevant to note that "snippet" is Google's word and is intentionally not a legal term; how much text is displayed is entirely at Google's discretion.

...The Internet has become, like the 17th-century printing press, incapable of observing copyrights. In the same way the printing press encouraged the mass production of books and magazines and newspapers, the Internet cries out for the distribution of all information--everything from blog entries to pictures to books. And as it distributes all of this information, it exerts a leveling force that diminishes the value of everything it touches. There is no reason that the Internet, unlike the printing press before it, should be exempt from the same protections of creative value. Yet, this is what Google's defense would achieve.

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