Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Google Sued by Authors: When is "May I" Necessary?

In the latest confrontation with Google's library scanning efforts, The New York Times reports on a new lawsuit against Google that includes as plaintiffs The Authors' Guild, which claims "massive" copyright infringement by Google through their Google Print program. Here we go again. The questions on Google's program continue to revolve around "fair use" guidelines for permitted copying without prior authorization. As demonstrated by Google's Cathy Gordon at last week's ASIDIC conference, snippets exposed of copyrighted works tend to be fairly small. But what does one make of entire short poems being exposed, as in this example from plaintiff and poet Daniel Hoffman? If we want ever to read "In the Days of Rin-Tin-Tin" we're good to go indefinitely. But given that the use is non-commercial, that there are only a few sample poems exposed, and that there are links from the sample pages to commercial outlets for the content, it's hard to imagine that this exposure is commercially harmful. Moreover, there's actually somewhat less content exposed in this example from Google Print than for the same title seen via Amazon's "Search Inside the Book" feature.

Mr. Hoffman et al. need to consider carefully what benefit their suit has to the future of print-centric authors in an era in which fewer and fewer of their works are going to be thumbed through in local bookstores. Poetry is a particularly interesting example: it's slow-moving merchandise that takes a certain commitment on the behalf of bookstore owners to support. Google has been on the defensive lately with its efforts to make copyrighted content part of the natural flow of online searches, but at the end of the day they seem to be toeing the fuzzy line on excerpts from copyrighted materials as best they can in ways that can only benefit marginal authors. The issue is not making copies, but rather whether the use made of copies is fair. The Authors Guild addresses many issues important to the future of individuals trying to profit from their writing skills, but the scope and focus this suit seems to be ill-directed and counterproductive towards furthering the future of profitable authoring in today's electronic content environment.
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