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The Searchers

In the midst of all the hoopla about much more important things, a news item flashed by early last week: The Authors Guild was suing Google. At the intersection of the Internet and copyrights, the rubber’s hitting the road.

Google made the mind-boggling announcement some months ago that it had reached agreements with Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public Library and a few others to scan the entire contents of their library collections into a database that would be accessible online. Google, as you probably know, was started by a couple of college kids in 1995 who figured they could make a better Internet search engine, and did. Google now accounts for the majority of searches on the Web and has bazillions in the bank, and its corporate mission statement is to make the world’s information accessible. Google thinks big and is serious about its mission statement.

Google’s plan is as follows: Put these libraries’ collections into a database. When someone puts a search term into the database, a list of books containing that search term will be displayed. Books that are in the public domain (for which copyright protection has expired, or never existed) will be freely accessible. For books still protected by copyright, the user will see the search term and a few sentences of text around the search term. Google has announced that any copyright owner can pull a work out of the database for the asking.

After months of negotiating, the Authors Guild (supported by a host of publishing and writers’ groups) pulled the string and went to court to stop Google, claiming all kinds of horrible copyright infringements.

This is the latest in ill-advised shoot-yourself-in-the-foot lawsuits brought by organizations claiming to represent creators that, if successful, will hurt creators more than help them. And, given existing legal precedent, the case looks like a horse race.

There was a case a few years ago in California in which an online-image search engine was held not to infringe the rights of the creators of the images. The court ruled that the display of little, low-res, thumbnail versions was a fair, legal use of the images. The shrinking of the original images was transformative and didn’t compete in the marketplace with the originals. (In fact, the thumbnails linked a user to the original on the Web.) This is very similar to what we have here with Google.

Then there was a case a few years ago in New York where a company loaded thousands of CDs into a database, and allowed folks who could show they already owned a particular CD to listen to songs from that CD over the Internet. Nix, nix said the court. Copying a work into a database for a commercial purpose was infringement. This is very similar to what we have here with Google!

Google’s really not doing anything different than it’s been doing for 10 years—that is, pointing people toward information. It’s the extra step of putting that information into machine-readable form that seems to be the rub.

One can only wonder what the Authors Guild is thinking here. Someone doing a search will get the name, author, and publisher of the book the in which search term appears, and a few sentences of the text around that term. In the vast majority of circumstances, if the “hit” looks promising enough, the user will seek out the entire book for the entire context of search result. Next to a search result, you can be sure there will be a link to booksellers. Click, click, buy. For most books out there, this will be the best marketing tool ever devised, and it won’t cost the authors and publishers a dime.

But hey, in the blinders-on view that all large copyright owners seem to have, it’s copying. Copying bad! Ugga, ugga. Tape bad! Disks bad! Photocopies bad! Computers bad! Libraries bad! Mine, mine, mine! Google should win this case, and I think it will.

Meantime, Google’s got some other fish to fry. Remember a few years ago, when work crews were feverishly laying bright-colored cable off big spools into ditches all along every expressway you drove down? Much of that was fiber-optic cable put there by the WorldComms and Global Crossings of the world, companies that hardly exist anymore because, well, the CEOs are all in the hoosegow. Google’s been quietly buying up a lot of that cable, along with huge amounts of space in telecommunications buildings in big cities, where telephone and Internet companies put all their stuff.

It sure looks like Google is going to have its own Internet network to interface with the one we’ve already got. What’s more, it’s quite possible that Google is looking to offer free Wi-Fi Internet access everywhere it can. Stop and think about that. Free Internet for everybody everywhere. The only downside will be that you’ll likely have to open to a Google page, and see a couple of links to Google sponsors when you do a search. Exactly like you probably do right now. Adios AOL! Adios Yahoo! Adios Road Runner!

Oh yeah. And Google just announced that it’s tripling the size of its searching capabilties. Tripling. Just like that.

—Paul Rapp


Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment and copyright law at Albany Law School. Contact info can be found at

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