The world is changing. As an author and creative person, I want as much intellectual property protection as possible. As a creator, I want as much flexibility as possible.
Here’s the summary of a very significant intellectual property case decided this month by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin:
In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.”
On the one hand, Google is providing a substantial public service by unearthing, scanning, and distributing works in the public domain that may otherwise be forgotten. What’s more, they’re placing everything into a searchable database that can be accessed by just about everyone who wants or needs it.
On the other, Google has gone too far by scanning and distributing works that are not in the public domain, but are, instead, owned and controlled by copyright holders. (Most are authors, who typically assign publishing rights to their publishers but retain their copyrights.) Here, in my view (not a lawyer, but an author and a business person), the solution is simple, reasonable, and available. Google must ask permission of copyright holders before freely distributing their work. (Yes, this is cumbersome, but Google is a company whose cleverness is exceeded only by its resources.) Of course, authors could be pro-active in making such grants because they believe, in their sole and reasonable judgment, that their work’s inclusion in the Google Books database would be in the public interest or would benefit the author’s work from a marketing point of view.
In fact, Creative Commons has done a lot of good work in this area, making it easy for copyright owners to establish rules with regard to sharing, copying and other uses of their property.
The issue is not whether Google Books should scan and distribute books, and the issue not whether this activity results in a public good. The issue is whether making full digital copies of a book in a public library that is still protected by copyright, and then distributing the digital copy without permission of a copyright holder is, under any reasonable interpretation of the law, more similar to a 21st century card catalog or more similar to copyright infringement on a massive scale.
As an author, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of copyright protection and a requirement that Google, or any other party, affirmatively secure permission of my intellectual property prior to its distribution.
As a producer and businessperson, I could reconsider that position because the current decision may apply to future projects in some interesting ways. For example, one might contemplate an online system of recommended books that include substantial portions of copyrighted work—full chapters, perhaps, or more—as a kind of public literacy project. Or, one might translate entire works into other languages to provide greater access to those works. In both cases, if the works are scanned into a database so that researchers might use them for educational purposes, no permissions should be necessary.
Let’s take that a step further. There is so much video now available on the internet, and, for the most part, it is very difficult to search within those videos. If you were to create a database of, say, movie scripts or, in a more advanced form, movie dialogue, you might well be able to show the whole movie, perhaps in “snippets” (the term used by Google for its portions of larger works), or, at least, include these movie excerpts in a series of online documentaries that explore, for example, the mythology of the Star Wars films, or the role of animal characters in Disney or Pixar films. If it’s all for the public good, and it’s all part of a searchable database, Judge Chin’s ruling suggests that Fair Use is both a reasonable defense with regard to challenges, and, in a larger sense, that this sort of activity is to be encouraged if it serves a research need, promotes the films, and transforms the ways that people consume these films.
It’s easy to be glib or flippant about the tremendous reach of the judge’s decision, but in the end, this isn’t about books, or Google. It’s about whether creative professionals will be able to earn a living in the future. With each step into a new digital future, that future becomes just that much more murky. In doubt about that? Read this.