The US Authors' Guild suing Google over copyright infringement. In a class action with the biographer of Abraham Lincoln biographer, a children's book author, and a former Poet Laureate of the United States, the guild alleges that the search engine is 'massive copyright infringement at the expense of the rights of individual writers'.
Google Print is a service whereby searchers can find information about a book, read extracts and buy it. Full text of a work is limited to those that are out of copyright.
'This is a plain and brazen violation of copyright law,' said the Authors Guild president Nick Taylor. 'It's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.'
Google, for its part points out that any copyright holder can elect to have their works withheld from the programme. It also says that Google does not show a single page to users who find copyrighted books through this program unless the copyright holder has given permission to show more. In a blog entry Susan Wojcicki, Google's Vice President of Product Management said, ' We regret that this group chose to sue us over a program that will make millions of books more discoverable to the world'.
This will be a very interesting issue for the courts to look at. 'Fair Use' is a very muddled concept, and there is no clear guidlines for what is, and is not fair use. The fact that this is a commercial enterprise, and Google will get revenue from it, will weigh heavily against Google.
From an economic standpoint though, I am pretty sure that any Author would do better with their works in Google's search than they would without it.
I think it is also pretty clear that humanity as a whole will benefit from such a product. Our success as a species is closely linked to our ability to transfer knowledge from one person to another. Anything that adds to that ability is a huge benefit, and Google Print seems to be such a tool.
The underlying issue, the real source of the problem is the length of copyright in the United States. It is pretty generally assumed now that any work that is currently copyrighted will be copyrighted for all time, as congress will extend copywright length in response to corporate pressure. Looking forward, we can pretty much assume that under current law, searchable text online will be limited to a decreasing fraction of human knowledge unless Google prevails in the concept of fair use.
If copyright was a more realistic time, something akin to our patent law, we could probably simply have older works searchable and online and live with our online resources being out of date.
The plaintifs claim that Google should first get permission from the copyright holders before scanning and putting a work online. On it's face this sounds reasonable. However, the simple fact is that it is not a feasible option. Even if all of the authors were ammenable to the idea and wanted their works online for free, determining the legal copyright owners of the works and contacting them would cost exponentially more than the rest of the project combined. If that is going to be the rule, the project will never happen.
It is likely to me that, although I consider it to be an unjustice and a detriment to society, the copyright holders in this case do in fact have the law on their side. Congress does have broad powers to control copyright, and while they may have done a poor job with their powers, the courts cannot remedy the situation. Sometimes the courts can (and should) protect our rights and promote the common good. In this case though, Congress has the duty to act.