March 13, 2007 · Lessig
Nathan Weinberg has a piece on WebProNews responding to my response to Tom Rubin’s criticism of Google’s “respect” for copyright. The piece is (well written and) useful, because it packs in its couple hundred words all the fallacies that haunt this anti-Google debate.
Fallacy one: “When you make a copy of a copyrighted work, you are in essence stealing it, and even when I download music and movies, I never kid myself that what I am doing is legal.”
First, Nathan, don’t download music and movies without the permission of the copyright owner. Bad, bad, bad.
But third, and most important, not every “copy” violates copyright law. In particular, if a copy is “fair use,” then copyright law has not been violated. The question in this case is thus, as always, is the copying for purposes of making snippet access available “fair use.” As much as you know that it is wrong to download music without the permission of the copyright owner, I hope you also know that it is right to make copies — even without the permission of the copyright owner — when such copies are fair use.
Fallacy two: “While there are many authors who care more about getting their books out there than making money, the vast majority is trying to earn a living. Those authors whose books are out of print, but still in copyright, would love an opportunity to make some money off their older books, but Google’s plan involves copying them without permission.”
True, most authors would prefer to make more money from their works than they did before. True, Google plans on copying them (for purposes of making snippet access available) without permission. But the implication — that Google’s copying will reduce author’s opportunity to make money — is false. Out of print books are — by definition — books the authors are not making money on. Google’s Book Search will refer people who discover the out of print book to book sellers. If demand for a currently out of print book grows, then it is more likely than before that the book will go back into print, meaning again, the author can make money. So contrary to the “if Google copies, authors lose” fallacy, if Google enables access, at least some authors will get something they don’t have right now — their out of print book back in print.
Fallacy three: “Even if all the authors want their books in Google, I’ve always felt that to respect me, you have to show respect, and that means asking me if what you are doing is okay. Don’t tell these authors what’s best for them, that shows no respect at all.”
First, both sides in this debate are effectively “tell[ing] these authors what’s best for them.” Microsoft and the Publishers are telling the authors that it is best for them that the law ban companies like Google from securing access to snippets of their works. They want a rule that says “ask first” not for permission to distribute copies of their books, but for permission to enable access through a 21st century card catalog. When in the history of man did the law require permission from an author (or publisher) for a work to be included in a card catalog?
Second, the point ignores the central point in this debate: Given the insanely inefficient system of copyright that the government has created, there’s no way to identify the current owners of these copyrights (for works out of print). So how, again, are these people to be “asked”?
Fallacy four: “Mr. Lessig, even if you want Google to scan and index your book, even if you want the knowledge in your book spread throughout the earth, wouldn’t you want Google, a company that will make money off your book you will never see, to at least ask permission first?”
There are lots of people who make money off of my work without asking me, and it’s a good thing too. Look at the bump in Stephen Manes Google rank from his criticism of me. How much money do you think Forbes got in ads from the click-throughs that this article — calling me an “idiot” and “moron” and other such stuff? Do you think Manes asked me before he tried to profit as he did. (No.) Do you think he should have to ask me? I certainly don’t. If the use is “fair use” — which even Manes article is — then we should encourage people to make money on it. The more money people can make, the more the economy around spreading ideas can grow.