A subject near and dear to my heart, on copyright law and electronic
distribution, from the January 31, 2006 edition of The Lance.
Dr. Matthew Rimmer of the Australian National University Presented his
“Google: Search or Destroy” to a packed house January 27 in the Faculty of Law
The lecture, presented by the Canadian-American Research Centre for Law
Policy, focused on the internet giant’s recent foray into book digitizing, and
headaches it has been experiencing as a result.
“Ever since rivers of gold started flowing into its coffers, Google has been
of a number of lawsuits,” he said.
Rimmer started his lecture by discussing the concerns some have had over
Google Books project, specifically that it poses a threat to traditional
something Rimmer doesn’t really believe.
“I’m a little skeptical of the hype that surrounds Google,” he said, adding
is not the first to attempt the large-scale digitization of media, “and that it
be looked at in the proper context.”
At present, Google has an agreement with five libraries at the Univeristy of
Stanford, Harvard and Oxford Universities, and the New York Public Library.
are allowing the scanning of all books in the collection while others, like
only allowing the scanning of works in the public domain.
Google has said only excerpts of copyrighted works will be made available
the entire work will be scanned and catalogued.
Rimmer dedicated a large portion of his lecture to the thorny issue of
infringement and public domain, specifically the current lawsuit against
the American Association of Publishers.
According to Rimmer, even if Google is in violation of it, copyright law was not effective at protecting anyone’s interests in the first place.
“Perhaps copyright law hasn’t done enough to provide wage justice for authors. It’s a great idea rhetorically, but in operation, it may not go far enough,” said Rimmer, adding a quote from publisher Tim O’Reilly: “Obscurity is a much bigger threat to authors than copyright infringement.”
In most of its legal battles, Google has relied on the defense of fair use, or fair dealing as it’s know in Canada, which allows for the reproduction of copyrighted material without permission in some circumstances such as research or scholarship.
Google has also won a number of cases using the precedent of transformative use, an interpretation of copyright law that came to prominence in the 1990’s. In the case of transformative use, the copyrighted material us used in a fashion different from what it was originally intended for, in essence creating a new work as a result.
All of these defences have worked for Google in the U.S. However, as Rimmer pointed out, Google services the globe, and laws are different all over the world, making it difficult to discern which laws Google should be held accountable to.
“The interesting thing about the dispute is that it raises many questions about jurisdictions,” said Rimmer, using public domain considerations as an example. In the United States, copyright law protects a work for the life of the author plus seventy years before it enters the public domain. In Canada, the work is protected for the life of the author plus fifty years.
“If I was running Google Books, I’d have set up in Canada,” joked Rimmer.
According to Rimmer, when every country has different laws for what constitutes a copyright infringement, it becomes nearly impossible to effectively police how the works are used.
“Between the scanning, uploading and downloading you could have three
infringements all taking place in different parts of the world,” he said.
Still, Rimmer believes the Google Books project has the potential to revolutionize the print industry the same way file sharing revolutionized the recording industry at the turn of the century.
“Publishers have not done a very good job at exploring the opportunities of electronic publishing,” Rimmer said. “Maybe they need a third party to show them what’s possible, like Apple did for the recording companies with iTunes.”
Rimmer added that the project also serves a cultural role, by preserving a number of forgotten books.
“[When copyright expires] you also end up with orphaned works with no copyright holder, that are left to die on the vine because there’s no commercial market anymore,” said Rimmer. “Google serves the cultural function of keeping these works available.”