Friday, February 19, 2010

The Power (and Controversy) of the Almighty Google

Google has come under--simultaneously--a great deal of scrutiny and a great deal of praise. When Stephan Pastis recently lampooned Google in his comic strip Pearls before Swine, the fear that his characters, the Crocodiles, exhibited is not unlike the fear surrounding the issue of Google’s book search. In Pastis’s strip, the Crocs feared the power of “ ‘Da Google’ ” to turn up any answer, any solution.

I’ll admit to being a product of my generation--Google searches are fun and easy. And the number of times I’ve used Google books to find what anthology contains which story by a particular author have been numerous. So it’s a great research tool, and as such is a boon to readers and writers alike.

However, there’s also the issue of intellectual property. Minor little thing, right? In New York, federal judge Dennis Chin has been hearing from both sides of the deal surrounding Google’s book search. The problem: Google scans the entire book if it’s out of print, but “out of print” does not immediately equate with “out of copyright.”

By way of example, James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners--published in 1914--is out of copyright in the United States and therefore in the public domain. However, many editions of the book continue to be published, precisely because of how popular it is. And if the book was published in the United States after 1922, odds are that it’s still under copyright, even if copies haven’t been printed for decades.

Proponents say that the deal with Google will allow publishers and authors to earn money from digitized copies of books that have been long out of print--in theory, a good thing, as it will allow people to access these long-lost works again. However, opponents charge that it’s still copyright infringement. They have a pretty solid argument, too: Basically, you can’t punish somebody for infringing copyrighted works by reproducing them without the copyright holder’s assent, and the proposed deal does little more than punish Google (for copyright infringement) by making it profitable for them to infringe copyright.


Yes, it is that confusing, and Judge Chin has commented, according to The New York Times, that he won’t rule immediately because there’s “just too much to digest.” (And of course, I find it a little funny that he says “digest,” because a digest can also be a consolidation of books and texts, and what are we dealing with on the Google books imbroglio if not this question of access to books?)

Read the article at The New York Times:


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