Score another for Google.
Last week, a federal judge upheld the Internet titan’s right to digitally copy and upload millions of books to build its online library. Under “fair use,” U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin deemed that Google Books offers a “significant public benefit,” but over the long term, his ruling will likely disadvantage the general public by dis-incentivizing authors and thwarting innovation.
The Authors Guild, which represents about 8,000 authors and publishers, first sued Google in 2005 after the company began making unauthorized copies of nearly every book available and displaying them publicly on its for-profit website. Most of these books were and are copyrighted, which in principle guaranteed their creators the right to profit off their distribution.
However, Google’s triumph over the Authors Guild places the future of literary copyright in serious jeopardy.
Google successfully defended Google Books by fashioning itself as a 21st-century library, making literature available for the common good. However, the facade couldn’t be further from the truth.
Conventional public libraries function as a cooperative, using taxpayer money to purchase books from the publisher and making them available to these same taxpayers for a period of time. The book is publicly owned, but distribution is finite, and access to the book generally requires paying into the system that compensates the author and publisher.
Google Books, on the other hand, puts copies of books on the Internet for all the world to see, without anyone’s permission. There is no buy-in, no control on distribution, and no limit to how many times a person can view an author’s copyrighted content without compensating that author whatsoever.
Because of this lack of buy-in, Google Books can never be a “public good” in the way a public library is. While Google Books may seem helpful for researchers and pleasure readers – who can view the pages of copyrighted material Google offers as a “preview” for free – the ultimate beneficiary of this service isn’t the general public, but rather Google’s shareholders. Like all other services the massive corporation offers, Google Books is designed to deliver profit, in the form of advertising revenue and book and ebook sales.
Furthermore, the public good “created” by Google’s mass scanning and uploading of copyrighted books is fleeting and shortsighted. There’s no doubt that if all authorship ceased today – if no further books were ever to be written – Google’s operation would be to the benefit of the public by increasing access to literature and scholarship.
But over the long term, Google Books will slowly eat away at the incentives authors and publishers have to invest years of work, creating a book and bringing it to market. When private property rights are weakened, innovation is stifled, and future generations of readers pay the price of fewer and fewer new books available.
Google’s successful utilization of the “fair use” defense is also problematic for content creators, as it opens the lid on a Pandora’s box of third parties seeking to profit off copyrighted materials. By ruling that Google’s omission of pages from its “previews” of books constitutes fair use, Judge Chin set federal law on a slippery slope that could put other online content providers legally in the clear even if they upload and distribute significant portions of copyrighted works.
A great book can be a societal treasure and a cultural cornerstone, but so long as it is under copyright, it is the private property of the author and not a public good.
By winning the right to continue uploading books online, Google has further blurred the lines of private property and copyright law. This short-term win for Google is a long-term casualty for authors, and for the public at large.
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