August 12, 2005

Google Print: Copyright vs. Innovation vs. commercial value

The recent Google Print debate has been far-reaching, e.g. Siva Vaidhyanathan: Google Avoids Copyright Meltdown:

If copyright is to mean anything at all, then corporations may not copy entire works that they have never purchased without permission for commercial gain. I can't imagine what sort of argument -- short of copyright nihilism -- would justify such a radical change in copyright law.

When discussing the implications of the copyright system, I sometimes try to point out that there are intrinsic conflicts inherent in it, especially in terms of technological advances.

Let's step back for a moment. Why is Google doing this book-scanning project? It's not because it's just so cool (even if it is). While coolness may justify a small-scale promotional project, the scanning efforts are expensive. So Google, as a company, obviously sees some value in the effort. This is not wrong. But it's also a direct conflict with the granted monopoly know as copyright. Whenever there is value, particularly commercial value, there is conflict over who should be able to receive it.

It's not hard at all to see potential returns here. Besides the obvious selling of ads from searches, consider that it positions Google to be a potential partner in any e-books venture. It's not a guarantee. But if a company already has a scanned, indexed, "production" version of the book, that's a good selling point. From this perspective, Google's interest in working with libraries can be seen as a way to do an end-run around contracts with publishers, and Amazon's own evident efforts (talking about doing well by doing good!)

That's just an example. Look at it this way. Google is saying, "Let us make e-books of all library content, and keep them - for copyright reasons we'll only display search results". That's clearly very dubious under copyright. But ... it's obviously an innovation. However, it's a very commercially valuable innovation. Which brings us back to copyright. A problem with the polarized debate over copyright is that it's often framed in terms of morality of property rights, opposed by individual usage rights (which leads to screaming of "monopolists" vs "thief"). But if the Google Print scanning project is viewed as a balance of economic interests - between one company that wants to leverage its search expertise into the e-book area, and other companies which want to maintain their limited monopoly on the potential market, then assuming one believes copyright properly grants some exclusive rights - it's not obvious which is correct here.

That is, the technology company can't be right every time, almost by definition. Because copyright as a limited monopoly fundamentally restricts innovation in some ways. That's the trade-off.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight , google | on August 12, 2005 10:47 PM (Infothought permalink)
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Seth, I have no argument with your post. But you mention Amazon, and I think a clarification is in order because of this. I've seen too many posts on other forums to the effect that "Amazon is doing it, so why not Google?"

Amazon's "search in the book" is based on first obtaining the permission of the rights holder. That's why it is entirely different than Google's Library Project. On Amazon's website, I grabbed this: "Once you sign the Publisher Participation Agreement and are accepted into the program, you will need to provide us with a physical copy of each book you would like to include in the program. If you are the rights holder (including copyright and marketing and promotional rights) and would like to participate in the Search Inside the Book program, please sign up."

I know you know this, but I just wanted to be sure that no one assumes that Google is competing with Amazon. Rights holders have no quarrel with Amazon's program.

Google, on the other hand, plans to scan copyrighted material without first getting the permission of the rights holder. Their latest move is an extremely minor concession. In fact, I think they did it to "spin" the issue, so that the casual observer thinks that the Big Bad Publishers have hamstrung Poor Little Google, the common man's friend. Yech!

Posted by: Daniel Brandt at August 14, 2005 07:26 PM