Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speaking of Our Benevolent Overlords

Hot on the tail of our discussion of Oprah yesterday—which confirmed my theory that, just as you are not largely controlled by Dan Brown, neither are you totally swayed by the powers of Oprah Winfrey—is the news that the DOJ has rejected Google's book deal.

For those of you just tuning in, some background may be in order. You can find a good rundown here and a timeline here, but I'll provide it in trademark Bullet-O-Vision™ for the link-averse:

• December 2004: Google conceives the Google Print Library Project, the precursor to today's Google Book Search.
• September/October 2005: the Authors Guild of America and Association of American Publishers independently sue Google, citing copyright infringement. Google objects, citing fair use.
• August 2006 - July 2007: Over the course of a year, a bunch of university libraries announce they'll be partnering with Google in the Book Search venture.
• March 2007: Microsoft jumps on board the litigation bandwagon. This isn't surprising, since Google and Microsoft are rivals (Chrome vs. IE, Google search engine vs. Bing, &c.)
• October 2008: A settlement is reached in which Google agrees to pay $125 million to remunerate all copyright holders whose rights were infringed, cover all legal fees, and create a public Book Rights Registry. Ever since, the terms have been under negotiation, with a ruling expected next month. However, as mentioned above, there's been a bit of a setback.

The main problem, at least as far as I can see, is this: Google believes they are allowed to keep full scans of any book—even those still under copyright—in their database, so long as they only permit public access to books that are already in the public domain; most copyright holders disagree, particularly publishers who are 50% legitimately worried that permitting one private company to effectively control the majority of the world's printed word is dangerous and 50% terrified of technology in general.

My take: I am 100% in favor of Google maintaining a database of public domain works, as are, I think, most people—except possibly public libraries, who may go by the wayswide if and when e-books come to power, meaning Google + Amazon = Your Reading Experience™. (In case you couldn't tell, I really love that little "™" symbol.) However, I am not in favor of Google maintaining a database and book registry for copyrighted material for the following reasons:

Security. Book piracy isn't really a problem yet, but once e-books are commonplace and Google's got a massive (ostensibly private) database of copyrighted material all in one place, it will, I think, be very attractive to e-pirates who don't want to pay full price for electronic books.
Accountability. Depending on the nuts and bolts of your contract, the copyright is either in your name or your publisher's, yet Google's holding onto it without your permission. But don't worry, they'll pay you if people are accessing your copyrighted material through them.
Destruction of competition. With everything centralized and controlled by one entity, it seems to me healthy competition (e.g. from publishers, other electronic book databases, libraries, &c) could be stifled.

Then again, I'm the cautious (some say conspiracy theorist) type, so it could all be unnecessary hand-wringing. But I know if it were my copyright and my livelihood involved, I'd be damned sure no one was exploiting my work or stealing from me while citing free exchange of information.


  1. I would love a Google version of Project Gutenberg. Having to download PG's books when I don't have an e-reader can be a little annoying, although it is worth it.

    I agree with you on the works still in copyright though. I know plenty of people who read pirated versions of Harry Potter and Twilight on their computers and those versions are usually just badly scanned copies of the original. If people actually had easy access to good copies of books, I can see book piracy becoming a problem like music and film piracy is.

  2. Google believes they are allowed to keep full scans of any book—even those still under copyright—in their database

    Congrats! This week's Over-Inflated Ego award goes to Google. Pick up the "giant head" trophy on your way out, and good luck with getting it through the door.

    Good post. I wonder how long these battles will go on before anything is settled. And the general public has no clue that all of this is even taking place (which is 50% scary and 50% humorous). They'll just ride whatever wave that results from it. Very interesting.

  3. I love much of what Google has done for the internet world but Google should not be allowed to keep the copies of copyrighted books it took without permission. That in itself was piracy. We all know what happens when huge corporations control any product or service. It becomes really hard to fight such power and money, even if you are 100 percent right.

  4. Is there a new definition for copyright? What, exactly, does it mean if not "you can't copy this without my permission"? Good for the DOJ!

  5. I have to believe book piracy is only a problem for new releases. We can already pick up books just a year old at cut rate prices at used book stores and Amazon. So if Google is only posting books in the public domain, i.e. old books, I can't see them really affecting the biz. Any thoughts on that, Eric?

  6. I think Google does some amazing things. I'm still reveling in the fact that you can go to Google maps and virtually walk through any place in the world. Amazing!
    But as far as them keeping full scans of any book- this is a slippery slope.

  7. I'm with Tricia. Google had no right to make their own copies of copyrighted works to begin with.

    That said, I LOVE the public domain works in Google Book Search. It has made doing research so much easier! I was recently researching Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and was able to find a lot of great old books on GBS that were not available at my library.

    I don't know if Google is the right entity for this, but I fervently hope that we can maintain access to public domain works on the internet. Maybe have it under the Library of Congress?

  8. I only wish Google books would focus on textbooks so I could save a bit more per semester. That is it to the extent I want Google involved with any type of book. Once you have a database of something on the internet it will always lead to piracy. Google's employees are not saints.

  9. I keep a "database of copyrighted material" in my home: it's called a bookshelf, and it's full of printed books. Come to think of it, the public library branch down the street from me keeps the same kind of "database," only with a lot more copyrighted material in it--and there, anyone who walks in the door can view as much copyrighted material as he or she wants!

    Google's database is simply a high-tech version of these simple, papercentric examples. It's what Google DOES with the copyrighted material that matters, and thus far Google has only allowed viewers to read short snippets of text (unless the content is either in the public domain or Google has received express permission from the rights-holders).

  10. Is the SEC involved in this debate, seeing as how (to me) this seems like the practice is bordering on monopoly?

  11. amazon + google = gamazongle?

  12. A lot of readers have the attitude "I bought it; it's my book." When you buy a book, what you own is the physical object. The contents are the intellectual property of the copyright holder. That's why you can't go down to Kinko's and photocopy a whole book to resell or give away. You can give away or resell the physical book that you own, but you can't legally reproduce and distribute its contents.

    The issue gets a lot more complex when a book is no longer a physical object but a file. You can make a copy with a couple of clicks, at no cost to you, and without someone across the counter at Kinko's explaining that it's illegal. You can keep your copy *and* give it away. The file doesn't get dog-eared and musty with time (which might make someone prefer a new copy).

    I'm glad that DOJ is paying attention to these issues. The libraries that agreed to let Google scan their collections were not the books' copyright holders.