Monday, October 03, 2005

The Google Library Project

The Wall Street Journal weighed in this morning on the Google project to digitize several university libraries. As Google has proposed it they would digitize the contents of libraries like Stanford, Oxford and Harvard. These digital books would be available and searchable on the internet. However, if the work is still under copyright, only limited portions of the work would be available to researchers. The Google project also would allow authors to "opt out" if they did not want their works included while still under copyright. But as it should, it clearly puts the bias toward fair use and then to disclosure into the public domain when the copyright expires.

The WSJ came down against the project under the rationale that "thou shalt not steal" - contrasting that with Google's own mantra "Don't be evil." In this case the WSJ is simply wrong. Copyright laws in the US, especially since the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, have been lopsided against reasonable fair use. Google's project will help to protect library materials and widen their use. For those works that are under copyright, there could well be increased visibiity, simply because of the materials being included in this database. During the period of the copyright the author would be protected and probably would also be made slightly more visible.

This area is often referred to as "intellectual property" and that is a handy shorthand. But the analogy is not complete. Property here is created for public consumption - first in a pecuniary sense and then ultimately to be offered to the public for its use. When this idea was being debated Madison and Jefferson argued whether such limits would encourage enough people to produce works - there was a lot of discussion about how much incentive would be necessary. Authors and other producers of this "property" should be fairly compensated but not to the expense of public debate and discussion.

The original purposes of the copyright laws were to increase public availability - ultimately materials that were copyrighted were to be put into the public domain but current law extends that period beyond any reasonable standard. In addition, recent adjustments to the law have continued to extend those guarantees each time a copyright runs out. Thus, works that were originally copyrighted for a limited period in the 1920s have had their grants of exclusivity extended beyond anything contemplated when the work was first done. That is unreasonable and short sighted.

Google's project is a good idea. The WSJ is simply shortsighted on this issue.

No comments: