“Google” Books And The Entitlement of Possession

In a recent column in Make: magazine [subscriber access only – see below], Cory Doctorow unloads on museums that attempt to control reproductions of out-of-copyright works. His line of argument is interesting to consider in light of Google’s recent distribution of PDFs of scans of public domain books.
Cory visits the Greenwich Observatory museum and is told “no photos”. When asked the curator admits “It’s not really copyrighted per se, but we want to be the exclusive purveyors of photos and picture-postcards and so forth”. He finds that a similar restriction entails to access to Michelangelo’s David. Cory writes that:

There is no nice way to say this: a museum curator who takes this attitude to the exhibits in her charge is a traitor to history, to heritage, and to science. The point of a museum is to spread culture, not restrict it in order to run a penny-ante postcard racket… The sciences and the arts are built on copyihg, on observing, on measuring, on the public disclosure of facts and discoveries… No curator of human knowledge has the moral right to restrict the recording of our shared history… at a museum – generally funded by your own tax dollars

If you replace “museum” with “library” and “exhibits” with “books” then you approximate my perspective on the recent Google Books scanning project, with respect to works in the public domain. Google has embedded a pseudo-license into their scans of public domain books – books whose archival in public university libraries was funded by our own tax dollars, not by Google. This pseudo-license attempts to limit access to “personal, non-commercial use” and to require you to retain their per-page advertisements. When asked Google says in effect the same thing as the museum curator Cory encountered “well no, it’s not really copyrighted per se, but we want to be the exclusive purveyors of commercial this and that around these scans”.
Well, I’m grateful to Google for funding scanning of public domain works just as I’m grateful to museum curators. But there’s a principle here. That principle is open, unfettered access to knowledge that’s in the public domain. Just because you’ve got a huge pile of cash and were first in line with a cozy no-bid deal to do this scanning – a deal that cannot even be repeated given the wear and tear on collection items – doesn’t create a special exemption to this principle. Just because you possess something – whether the work itself or a digital reproduction thereof – doesn’t entitle you to a new copyright or license when the work is in the public domain. Indeed this is established legal precedent in the United States (Feist v. Rural Telphone Service, and Bridgman v. Corel).
So it’s no more reasonable for Google to expect perpetual ads on every page of these works any more than Bennetton should expect every reproduction of David to display clothing ads, just because Bennetton provided funding to the Galleria dell’Accademia. Of course corporations will periodically attempt to subvert the public domain, of intellectual property and of the environment: that’s a natural consequence of the profit motive. But it’s up to the community to call “bullshit” on them when they try. So, Google, don’t be evil.
P.S.. I did grimace at the irony of finding that an article condemning restricted access to content was itself access-restricted on the Web. Cory Doctorow, a pioneer of the emerging digital publishing industry, is not against authors making money, just exploring the fluid boundary between open and paid forms of expression. But it still seemed somehow a bit off. given his EFF politics and the subject matter. Yet Make: magazine just rocks so much that I can’t feel too badly – at our house an incoming issue instantly becomes a fought-over item. So subscribe already, you won’t regret it.

4 Responses to “Google” Books And The Entitlement of Possession

  1. bowerbird says:

    i suppose i could have grimaced
    when you suggested that we suck
    it up and subscribe to make.
    instead, i just smiled. :+)
    so i suggest you just suck it up
    and smile at google’s “ads”.
    (i take it you mean their logo
    on each page of their .pdfs.)
    or, if it really bothers you,
    there are programs out there
    that will let you delete any
    picture from a .pdf. but i
    suppose that — working for
    adobe — you knew that…

  2. Bill McCoy says:

    bowerbird, there’s a huge difference between putting a fence around land you own, and posting a “Keep Out” sign, and putting a fence around land in a National Forest, and posting the same sign. I might grimace at Make: magazine limiting online access to subscribers but it’s their copyright, so it’s their choice. Totally different situation than Google’s scanning of public domain works. I support giving publishers means to protect their copyrights, including DRM technology, if we make it as painless as possible for end users.

  3. anonymous says:

    Thanks, I really enjoyed and appreciated this post.
    There’s this little line in the U.S. Constitution, something about so and so existing “to promote the progress of science and useful arts…”
    Unfortunately, nowadays it’s gotten so bad that some commercial interests seem to espouse a sneering contempt for the public good; given their apparent perspectives and attitudes, it seems the public good is a nothing more than a nuisance threatening the sanctity of their intellectual property (when in fact, the public good is the reason behind the notion of intellectual property and its protection).

  4. bowerbird says:

    > there’s a huge difference between
    > putting a fence around land you own,
    > and posting a “Keep Out” sign,
    > and putting a fence around land
    > in a National Forest, and
    > posting the same sign.
    except google didn’t “put a fence”
    around those public-domain books;
    they delivered them to my doorstep.