Observations on the suit by the Authors’ Guild against Google Print

September 22nd, 2005 by Ross Scaife

Lawrence Lessig:

Property law since time immemorial had held that your land reached from the ground to the heavens. Then airplanes were invented — a technology oblivious to this ancient law. A couple of farmers sued to enforce their ancient rights — insisting airplanes can’t fly over land without their permission. And thus the Supreme Court had to decide whether this ancient law — much older than the law of copyright — should prevail over this new technology.

The Supreme Court’s answer was perfectly clear: Absolutely not. “Common sense revolts at the idea,? Justice Douglas wrote. And with that sentence, hundreds of years of property law was gone, and the world was a much wealthier place.

So too should common sense revolt at the claims of this law suit. I’m an academic, so this is a bit biased, but: Google Print could be the most important contribution to the spread of knowledge since Jefferson dreamed of national libraries. It is an astonishing opportunity to revive our cultural past, and make it accessible. Sure, Google will profit from it. Good for them. But if the law requires Google (or anyone else) to ask permission before they make knowledge available like this, then Google Print can’t exist. Given the total mess of copyright records, there is absolutely no way to enable this sort of access to our past while asking permission of authors up front. Or at least, even if Google could afford that cost, no one else could.

Google’s use is fair use. It would be in any case, but the total disaster of a property system that the Copyright Office has produced reinforces the conclusion that Google’s use is fair use.

And the EFF:

EFF believes Google is likely to prevail on its defense. One key point in Google’s favor is that Google Print is a transformative use of these books — the company is creating a virtual card catalog to assist people in finding relevant books, rather than creating replacements for the books themselves. In addition, it is almost certain that Google Print will boost, rather than hurt, the market for the copyrighted books. “It’s easy to see how Google Print can stimulate demand for books that otherwise would lay undiscovered in library stacks,” said von Lohmann. “It’s hard to see how it could hurt publishers or authors.

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