There are some blog post items which I look at, think long about and still wonder if I should even comment on. Not because it’s not an interesting topic but because I’m simply afraid to get the story wrong. These tend to be the more arcane and legally fraught areas of search and today’s missive is on just such a topic… OK deep breath.
Way back in the mid 2000s, Google started a project to scan and make readily available some (many… most?) of the printed books currently out of copyright. They started out by taking on the obvious targets like Peter Pan or Grim Fairy Tales and have relentlessly ground on through the years ingesting more and more material, by some estimates over 20 million books and counting. Having read the small print, it appears that Google is honoring the copyright notice on books still under that protection. However, in many cases the authors (especially for books still under copyright but currently out of print) have given permission so it’s possible to print and read a huge range of books which might otherwise only be find on the shelves of libraries at your leisure. On the face of it, it’s pretty close to a victimless crime; the books involved are either public domain or are being rendered immortal with the permission of their authors.
No good deed goes unpunished and pretty much as soon as Google announced the project they were assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of the Authors Guild. A protracted court case ensued, it’s been dragging its lawyerly feet through multiple courts ever since. I don’t pretend to understand the complicated machinations of the case… nor do most I’m sure. The legal case is a nightmare, indeed the parties tried to settle it a while back, and the judge who wanted to settle the crucial “fair use” component of the case threw out that attempt.
The case is back in front of the judge next month and many blood shot eyes will be peering at it to see if this time it gets decided. Some of the arguments seem themselves out of fiction. One is that Google scanning and indexing of the books is essentially “transformative” in the same way that rappers sampling other music does not breech copyright. Another is the argument that because Amazon samples books as part of its marketing process, it’s OK for Google to do the same… no I didn’t get that one either. Greater minds than ours will no doubt be brought to bear. Who knows, maybe a really useful way to extend and spread many kinds knowledge will be kept for us all… or maybe it will go the way of most other libraries nowadays… and become shuttered and empty.