In the face of threatened lawsuits, Google has decided to move forward with its book indexing plans. In August Google suspended the project, which initially will scan copyrighted books in the collections of Stanford University and the University of Michigan, to give publishers and authors time to request that their works not be included. While Google has said they'll focus on out-of-print books, that's unlikely to assuage the publishers. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Google's critics have objected to the company's plan to scan the library books without the authors' or publishers' permission, requiring copyright holders to proactively "opt out" of the scanning. At its core, the two sides are scrapping over the online application of "fair use," a legal doctrine allowing the use of copyrighted material for certain purposes, including teaching, research and news reporting. Some lawyers believe at least one of the lawsuits against Google could make its way through the legal system to the higher courts, eventually setting a precedent for fair use in the Internet age.
Larry Lessig discusses some of the legal background in this case in the November issue of Wired magazine. He writes that
[American Association of Publishers] CEO, Pat Schroeder, announced, "Google's procedure shifts the responsibility for preventing infringement to the copyright owner rather than the user, turning every principle of copyright law on its ear."
Schroeder is right, but the Authors Guild and the AAP are wrong. Copyright law has been turned on its ear, but it's not Google that did the turning; it's the Internet. Nor is it Google that is exploiting this turn; that title goes to the Authors Guild and the AAP.
Indeed, their claims about Google represent the biggest landgrab in the history of the Internet, and if taken seriously, will chill a wide range of innovation. Because if the AAP is right, it's not Google Print that's illegal. The outlaw is Google itself - and Yahoo!, and MSN Search, and the Internet Archive, and every other technology that makes knowledge useful in a digital age.
On one hand, Google's not really doing much more than a library does when they create a card catalog. On the other hand, it's an index that's dynamic and comprehensive. But as I've argued earlier, that's not any different than what Google does elsewhere. Google couldn't really do anything but move forward and fight the lawsuit, in my opinion. To do otherwise would have been to allow their entire business model to be held hostage. Given other recent court decisions, it's not clear to me that the courts will rule in a way that's good for the 'Net. Nevertheless, it's a battle that deserves to be fought.