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
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
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.
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