June 8, 2007 · Lessig
Engadget reports that “the head honcho of Macmillan Publishers” lifted a couple Google laptops at a recent BookExpo America, and then when he returned them, retorted “hope you enjoyed a taste of your own medicine,” and “there wasn’t a sign by the computers informing him not to steal them.”
So this betrays an astonishing level of ignorance, even for a “head honcho.”
Remember (and I did a 30 minute preso here to explain it) Google Books proposed to scan 18,000,000 books. Of those, 16% were in the public domain, and 9% were in copyright, and in print. That means, 75% of the books Google would scan are out of print but presumptively under copyright.
The publishers and Google already have deals for the 9%. And being in the public domain, no one needs a deal for the 16%. So the only thing the publishers might be complaining about is the 75% which are out of print and presumptively under copyright.
With respect to these, Google intends to index the books, and make them searchable. If a hit comes through the search engine, Google offers snippets of the text relevant to the search. The page includes links to libraries where the book might be borrowed; it includes links to book stores where the book might be purchased. And, I take it, if the “publishers” were to choose to publish the book again, it would also include a link to that publisher.
Finally, any author who wants to be removed from this index can be removed. As with Google on the net, anyone can opt out.
So vis-a-viz a computer sitting at a demonstration booth at a conference, is the “head honcho’s” action like Google’s?
Obviously not. And let us count the ways:
(1) Any such list must begin with the point obvious to all since the beginning of something called “IP,” but set to poetry by Jefferson. Read the full quote at the Connexions project. But the relevant line marking the difference here is this: “Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it.” If the “head honcho” has Google’s computers, Google can’t use them. But if Google indexes out of print books, that does not — in the least — reduce the access anyone else has to the same property.
(2) A computer sitting at a marked booth at a conference is like the 9% in print, and under copyright. With respect to those, Google has deals with the publishers. So the “head honcho’s” action is more like offering in print, in copyright books for free, and in total — something Google is emphatically not doing.
(3) If the computer was not sitting at a market booth, but instead was in a trash dump (like, for example, the publishers out of print book list), or on a field, lost to everyone, then that fits the category of property that Google is dealing with. But again, Google doesn’t take possession of the property in any way that interefers with anyone else taking possession of the property. The publisher, for example, is perfectly free to decide to publish the book again. Instead, in this case, what Google does is more like posting an advertisement — “lost computer, here it is, is it yours?”
(4) Or again, imagine the computer was left after the conference. No easy way to identify who the owner was. No number to call. In that case, what would the “head honcho’s,” or anyone’s rights be? Well depending upon local law, the basic rule is finders keepers, loser weepers. There might be an obligation to advertise. There might be an obligation to turn the property over to some entity that holds it for some period of time. But after that time, the property would go to the “head honcho” — totally free of any obligation to Google. Compare copyright law: where the property can be lost for almost a century, and no one (according to the publishers at least) has any right to do anything with it. Once an orphan, the law of copyright says, you must be an orphan. No one is permitted to even help advertise your status through a technique like search engine.
(5) Or again, imagine the computer was a bank account in New York. And imagine, the bank lost track of the owner of the account. After 5 years, the money is forfeited to the state. Compare copyright: in New York state, a sound recording could be 100 years old, but no one has any freedom with respect to that sound recording unless the copyright owner can be discovered.
The list could go on, but the obvious point is this: Physical property and the intangible property we call copyright are different. Jefferson pointed to one difference. But the really crucial difference that I’ve been trying to get people to see is that physical property systems have a host of techniques to assure that the property system is efficient. Copyright does not. Copyright is the least efficient property system constructed by government — which is saying a lot. And rather than continue sophomoric debates about who is “stealing” what, it’s about time that policymakers — and industry leaders — took responsibility for the inefficiency that copyright is.