Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 12/7/2005Could Googling become illegal? This is the rather sensationalist headline in the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada today, but it illustrates the minefield legislators face when trying to hack away at the tropical jungle that intellectual property has become in the heat of the information age.

Tuesday 12/7/2005

Could Googling become illegal? This is the rather sensationalist headline in the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada today, but it illustrates the minefield legislators face when trying to hack away at the tropical jungle that intellectual property has become in the heat of the information age. I don't propose to get into the legal niceties — what I know of Canadian law would take less time to digest than a maple syrup pancake — but there's a bill up for consideration that seems as if it might make the search engines themselves liable for copyright infringement. It does this in a backwards way, by seeking to limit such liabilities, but you can't limit what isn't there.

It's long been known that strictly speaking, the Internet relies completely on copyright abuse in its very soul. When you access a document or picture over the Web, the original data is rudely pulled from its resting place on some remote disk, copied into memory, shoved into a local network, hustled through a string of routers (into and out of memory each time) and sucked into your local ISP. Finally the exhausted packets are horsewhipped along your connection, into your computer's own memory and finally slapped with no dignity whatsoever onto your screen. At each stage — and by my rough calculations, there could easily be fifty of these — the data is copied. The very act that copyright was designed to regulate.

There is a widely accepted argument that this is all fair use, and another that those who publish their data on the Internet are implicitly accepting the mechanics of the process. It would be horrendously impracticable to do it any other way.

But horrendous impracticability counts little to those who love using intellectual property as a pure cash cow. In the same way that companies exist which roundly abuse the patent system to extort cash from hapless inventors, it would only take one sharp lawyer with some well-heeled friends to find a way to turn the above situation to their advantage. Pay for our transmission licence, or we'll take you to court.

A few bits of badly-worded regulation, and such a scenario could become more than paranoid musings from a hack who's seen enough badly-worded regulation in the past five years to make him think fondly of revolution and peasants with blazing torches.

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