Should Google be reined in?

Reining in Google - Commentary - The Washington Times

There seems to be a lot of misattribution of intent going on right now, not just in the media, but in the publishing community as well, around Google's Print Library Project. Yes, in an ideal world Google would only scan public domain books and let authors opt in to their larger program of making the text searchable, much as Amazon does with its "Look Inside" program. However, that would be extremely unwieldy and error-prone, resulting in both lower quality and poorer selection in their digital library. Imagine your public library having to go ask each author or publisher for permission before stocking their books, rather than just buying a copy, then expand that to a global scale, and you get an idea of the problem.

The real question here seems to center on what Google means by a "snippet." Those with a more sinister bent assume that a snippet will be somewhere between a chapter and the entire text of a book, so they cry copyright infringement. Those who assume Google has the best of intentions see this as a boon to authors, making a taste of their work available to the whole world and potentially spurring sales, just as free MP3 samples spur the sales of complete CDs.

Myself, I see this as Google pushing the boundaries of fair use in the pursuit of their greater goal: the digitalization of all knowledge. They may find a way to do this without infringing on copyrights. If they don't, then they have clearly decided to test the current laws and let the courts define new boundaries. It's probably time that we did that with print, just as we have done with music over the past five years. We can't think of words as being confined to one medium, location, or even a sequential format anymore. We need to stretch our thinking and our laws to ensure both protection for the artist and realistic usability for the consumer.

I think that Google is forcing that conversation to take place now, while they can still take the lead on this new frontier, rather than waiting another decade for the law to catch up to the market. By then, of course, Amazon will already have every book scanned and ready for sale by the page. As an author, I will applaud their audacity now, and be prepared to voice my displeasure if they take it too far. Even then, though, I will appreciate the fact that someone is stretching the boundaries to ensure that the written word, in all its glory, is not left behind.

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