Monday, September 30, 2013

Commentary: Google, Local Authors And Copyright

CopyrightDinosaur2The Category: Things that Share a Common Bond.

The Answer: “Floppy disks, the appendix, cassette tapes, the Latin language, and wisdom teeth.”

The Correct Question: “What are things that are useless or obsolete?” If you see that question on Jeopardy some day in the not-too-distant future, Alex Trebek might be adding one more element to the answers: the copyright claim. In fact, considering the beating that individual copy rights have taken recently, there’s an argument to be made that private copy rights have already gone the way of the dinosaurs. And there’s no role for cloning in this narrative.

Most of us (“us” as in frequent computer users) love Google for one reason or another. In many cases, it’s a love-hate relationship: we love the speedy access to so much information, but we hate the lack of privacy. We love the research capabilities, but we hate the way they use our personal information for advertising. On and on it goes.

Many of us have come to accept the pluses and minuses, but that same attitude has caused much trouble throughout history. Distraction by the good allows acceptance of the bad. (Facebook, fun … NSA using that information, not so fun.)

In the same regard, Google, despite all the positives they help bring to our digital lives, has ignored long-standing law by following its own interpretation of government rules, violating the established rights of thousands of authors. Still, they’ll probably get a free pass from most people because of two things: we love so much of what they provide, and they’re so damned wealthy they can violate the law and then rewrite it to suit their business plan. And that’s what they’ve done. Last week, a judge agreed that it sounded like a good thing.

Read this short paragraph and decide for yourself: what is vague within those legal claims? “All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.”

If you don’t mind backtracking briefly, re-read just the underlined portions as one sentence. It provides instant clarity to the statement’s intent. The only vagaries in that entire paragraph are “certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.” More on that later.

Now … you THOUGHT you read that it’s not legal to copy someone’s work in any fashion, but you didn’t read it through your Google glasses. I just donned my pair so I’ll tell you what you missed. “Actually, feel free to copy ANY book electronically. You shouldn’t sell it if it still has copyright protection, but feel free to give parts of it away to the public at your own discretion. No need to bother the author with silly questions. The public will benefit from what you’re doing, so go ahead and do it. It’s irrelevant what the author thinks of you copying his book and handing out portions of it, or all of it, to the public.”

That would be a hilarious and egregious exaggeration … except that it’s exactly what has happened. Years ago, Google arbitrarily decided to simply ignore centuries of American and international law in order to scan millions of books. It’s perfectly legal to copy any book in the public domain (generally those are works written before 1923). It’s also legal to copy books that have no copyright protection.

But to those two groups, Google added ANY book to which it had access. The law says they can’t copy my book. Google says they can copy my book as long as they don’t sell it, so they just went ahead and did it. They did the same to thousands of other authors who write to earn incomes.

That copyright clause mentioned “other noncommercial purposes.” I’ll report, and you decide if this is noncommercial. Google copied my book as a public service. (Yeah, right.) They offer snippets of it to be viewed for free on the Internet. Online visitors are considered web traffic, and Google is supported by advertising revenue, which is more lucrative the more visitors you have coming to your site. Next to my book’s cover are two clickable links where you supposedly can purchase a copy: AbeBooks and Amazon. What about my own online store where copies are ACTUALLY available? There’s no link provided because I’m not a paying Google advertiser.

MY interpretation? That DEFINES commercial use. Even if Google makes only a few cents per month off my book’s content, they’re earning money from my work that they took without asking. A few cents multiplied by millions of authors provides the explanation as to why they did it. They have now scanned 20 to 30 million books, in many cases titles that are protected under longstanding US copyright law.

Authors’ groups sued and the case went to court. Since there’s little ambiguity in the copyright statement, you’d think the justice system would appropriately slam Google for ignoring federal law and violating the rights of tens of thousands of authors. But as usually happens, it’s all about the money. The deeper your pockets, the greater likelihood you’ll win by purchasing the best, smoothest-talking legal representation that money can buy.

The case isn’t settled yet, but in court recently, one judge said his own clerks had used Google to obtain information, so he reasoned there must be value to the public. The wisdom of Solomon, right before our eyes! How he must have wrestled with the issues in reaching that conclusion—a position widely touted as supporting Google’s ongoing case that what they are doing is perfectly legal.

I now see the value of thinking like a Google lawyer. In fact, as a member of the public, I’m thinking it might benefit us NOT to have our taxes pay a judge’s salary. Wonder how he’d rule on that? It certainly meets the standard criteria of benefiting the public.

And if our government shows concern for the public’s benefit by allowing Google to give away authors’ books or even parts of them, I’m on board if it’s done fairly. I’ll have no trouble proving the benefit to me if they start giving away big-screen televisions and a host of other products. I’m sure the manufacturers won’t mind at all. And since Google copied my books without authorization, I’d accept a few shares of Google stock in return as well. At least THAT would be to my benefit.

Coming soon: How libraries fit in the mess Google has created.

Illustration courtesy Microsoft Media Elements Clip Art.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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2 Responses

  1. Lisa Meissner says:

    Interestingly when I went share this article on Facebook the Adk. Council’s ad is the accompanying picture, not the great article illustration or even the Adk. Almanacks logo.

    • John Warren says:


      It’s a problem with how Facebook automatically sees our photos. By the way, you can upload whatever picture you want to be shared with any link.

      John Warren

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