More on Authors Guild v. Google Print

22 Sep ’05

Lawrence Lessig has posted some obervations on the dispute. It’s perhaps the most lucid piece of writing on the topic I’ve seen so far so I’ll quote extensively:

It is 1976 all over again. Then, like now, content owners turned to the courts to stop an extraordinary new technology. Then, like now, copyright is the weapon of choice. But then, like now, the content owners of course don’t really want the court to stop the new technology. Then, like now, they simply want to be paid for the innovations of someone else. Then, like now, the content owners ought to lose.

This is the best case to illustrate the story I told at the start of Free Culture. Property law since time immemorial had held that your land reached from the ground to the heavens. Then airplanes were invented — a technology oblivious to this ancient law. A couple of farmers sued to enforce their ancient rights — insisting airplanes can’t fly over land without their permission. And thus the Supreme Court had to decide whether this ancient law — much older than the law of copyright — should prevail over this new technology.

The Supreme Court’s answer was perfectly clear: Absolutely not. “Common sense revolts at the idea,” Justice Douglas wrote. And with that sentence, hundreds of years of property law was gone, and the world was a much wealthier place.

So too should common sense revolt at the claims of this law suit. I’m an academic, so this is a bit biased, but: Google Print could be the most important contribution to the spread of knowledge since Jefferson dreamed of national libraries. It is an astonishing opportunity to revive our cultural past, and make it accessible. Sure, Google will profit from it. Good for them. But if the law requires Google (or anyone else) to ask permission before they make knowledge available like this, then Google Print can’t exist. Given the total mess of copyright records, there is absolutely no way to enable this sort of access to our past while asking permission of authors up front. Or at least, even if Google could afford that cost, no one else could.

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