Google, the self-professed best friend of authors everywhere, won a recent landmark case that has redefined copyright law. Grab a book off your shelf and read the brief copyright notice, which says something like, “No part of this book may be reproduced without permission …,” and mentions a few exceptions. It’s official now: that copyright “claim” is a dinosaur and needs to be rewritten to accommodate new interpretations of the law. Google (and other companies) can legally copy entire, copyright-protected books. They’ve already admitted to doing it millions of times over. While they can’t legally sell your book, they can use parts of it to drive Internet traffic their way and earn income.
The use of your book by others is still limited by law, but the court has said authors are not intended as the primary beneficiary of copyright protection. That was a new one for me. I had hoped that paying the government to establish my copyright meant just that literally—that my full book could never be copied in any way without me giving someone that specific right. But that’s not at all true.
Here’s part of the court’s finding: “The ultimate goal of copyright is to expand public knowledge and understanding, which copyright seeks to achieve by giving potential creators exclusive control over copying of their works, thus giving them a financial incentive to create informative, intellectually enriching works for public consumption.”
Sounds great, but after referring to a snippet from the Constitution, this follows: “Thus, while authors are undoubtedly important intended beneficiaries of copyright, the ultimate, primary intended beneficiary is the public, whose access to knowledge copyright seeks to advance by providing rewards for authorship.”
It’s sort of like eminent domain for books. You know … your property is great, but we could put a nice hotel there and serve the greater good. By the same token, the book you envisioned, created, and earned a living from could serve the greater good if we let Google or someone else use it.
And the rewards for the author? The court agreed with Google that someone just might view a snippet at Google Books and suddenly decide to purchase that title … but I suggest you don’t rush out and open a new bank account for Google snippet income. The likelihood of snippet purchases happening with any frequency might be called “speculative possibility,” the very term used by the court to mock claims made by anti-Google attorneys (as you’ll see in the second paragraph below).
The court also addressed Google’s providing of digital copies to the libraries whose books were scanned. For the sake of definition, digital copies are two things: they are basically e-books, and they are the files used to produce printed copies. Should anyone gain access to a library’s files, they could easily offer the e-book versions for sale, or simply give them away, and could offer hard copies via print-on-demand services.
Here’s how that issue was addressed: “We recognize the additional possibility that the libraries might incur liability by negligent mishandling of, and failure to protect, their digital copies, leaving them unreasonably vulnerable to hacking. That also, however, is nothing more than a speculative possibility. There is no basis … to impose liability on Google … merely because of the speculative possibility that the library may fail to guard sufficiently against the dangers of hacking, as it is contractually obligated to do.”
The ability to hack a library “is nothing more than a speculative possibility”? Really? Credit card information, store records, government departments, health records, the White House, the Pentagon—as we’ve seen, everything gets hacked. If something hasn’t been hacked, it will be. But somehow they’re comfortable entrusting certain libraries with protecting several million titles still owned and being sold by authors to earn an income.
Looks like we do have a faith-based government after all, using “speculative possibility” to dismiss one argument, and using it again to support their own claim. Despite the rulings, I’m still a fan of Google Books—at least parts of it.