Google's Electronic Library

I'm just hearing about Google's proposed electronic library today. I sent the link to the first article I read to some friends from college who aren't involved in publishing. One, who is often politically active and likes to follow certain legal issues, e-mailed me back after reading the article. He wanted to know my take on the matter because he wasn't certain if they proposed library was acceptable or not. Particularly, he asked me how I felt about them possibly scanning my work. I wrote the following back to him:

Based on the information I have available to me, I'm against it. Google scanning it and distributing it sans payment or contract is no different than if you scanned it in and put it up on your website. It deprives me of my electronic rights without benefit of compensation or contractual agreement.

Am I against eBooks? No. Although currently a small share of the market, they are a valid form of distribution preferred by some readers. I'm also not against audiobooks, paperbacks, or translating the work into different languages for publication in other countries. But, there are established methods for attaining the rights to produce such materials and Google is circumventing those methods. They are ignoring legal precedent by attempting an "opt-out" approach (the copyright holders must find out what we're up to and tell us they're not interested if they don't want us to do this with their works) rather than an "opt-in" approach (they would need to approach the copyright holders to obtain permission prior to proceeding).

It is this "opt-out" approach that is the most galling and concerning to me, not the proposed eBook library. Should it succeed, then it sets precedent for anyone to use copyrighted material without first contacting or alerting the copyright holder. For many reasons, this is a bad, bad thing.

Honestly, I don't think Google will be able to go forward. Although I'm not a lawyer, this case is similar in my mind to Tasini v. New York Times. This, interestingly enough, was argued when I was just starting out as a freelancer and was an employee of Lexis-Nexis, one of the defendants in the case. Despite all the propaganda at the office, my sympathies were with the freelancers in that case and the freelancers did win. The paraphrased/summarized ruling in that case was simply: new technology does not change copyright law or the rights previously sold by the author.

See, my main problem is not with the proposed electronic library itself, but with Google's methods of creating it. The idea of an online library intrigues my inner techno-geek. I do lots of research online as it is. I'm a great fan of Sacred Texts, but those texts are in the public domain. Their copyright expired long, long ago. In many cases, it expired centuries before copyright law even existed.

This is just one more example of Corporate America ignoring the rights of the individual and the little guy for their own economic gain. Google argues that what they are doing is just 'fair use'. I argue good business doesn't have to be about bad ethics.


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