Copyright laws to come of age through trials

CNJ Editorial

The Association of American Publishers has filed a lawsuit against Google, the Internet search engine company, over Google’s plans to scan and digitize the texts of major university library collections. The publishers’ association contends the project will violate copyright protections.

This case is significant because it could provide an insight into how intellectual property can be protected in the digital age, when making perfect copies of digitized material is a matter of pressing a couple of buttons. This might not be the ideal time for such a case, given that few people have thought the matter through and new laws addressing the problem have yet to be written. However, technology is moving faster than the law, and sometimes you just have to muddle through.

It has been obvious for some time that traditional copyright law, designed for books and other publications printed on paper, was likely to be insufficient in the age of digital technology. It took decades for copyright practices and then laws to evolve after the invention of printing with moveable type, so it’s not surprising that the situation has not yet been addressed by laws in the digital age. This and other cases could force the issue.

So far it almost looks like good intentions vs. good guys.
Google has announced it intends to scan all or parts of the book collections of the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library and Oxford University. Once the project is completed, the company plans to allow people to search the texts, and pay for it all by selling ads related to such searches.

One can easily see the attractiveness of such a project. A tremendous intellectual and cultural resource could be made available to anybody — scholars, writers and anyone who is simply intellectually curious — who has access to the Internet. Making knowledge available more widely could spur progress in all kinds of fields, in ways we can barely imagine now.

The publishers’ association and the authors contend, however, that making copyrighted books available for free violates copyright laws and seizes the intellectual property of authors and publishers without compensation. This could make it less attractive to write books in the future.

Google contends its action is protected under the “fair use” provision of copyright law, which allows printing short excerpts, and that in the long run it will increase the awareness and sales of books. Its program, Google says, will only allow excerpts of books to be printed, and if users want the whole book they’ll have to buy it.

We can see an argument on both sides, but the possible implications are almost overwhelming. Could this be the beginning of the end of the printed book as the primary vehicle of human culture? Or will it enliven and rejuvenate the book industry?

Sooner or later we will have to confront such questions. Perhaps a lawsuit in which both sides have the resources to make their best case is as good a place as any to start.