Monday, December 12, 2005 Just Google 'thou shalt not steal'

Here's another news snippet, this one from today's Google Alert for intellectual property and copyright: Just Google 'thou shalt not steal'.

Read it. It's actually got a few valid points, but some of the author's points are - well, let's just say I disagree with some of what she has to say. Like, say, much of this excerpt:

"Most writers don't leave much money when they die, but many of them leave copyrights. My father was a writer, and his estate primarily consists of copyrights that yield enough income to support my 87-year-old mother.

Copyright is generally limited to the life of the writer plus 70 years. After that, the work goes into the public domain and is available to everyone. The Copyright Statute also includes a "fair use" clause, so that a few lines or phrases of a writer's work can be used as illustration by someone else. The amount of words that constitute fair use varies according to court case. At present, it is 400 words.

Enter Google, the hip, incredibly profitable corporation whose motto is "Do No Evil." Google doesn't like the copyright laws as they have existed for centuries. Google wants the rights to store all the books in the world in its Google Library program, and the company doesn't want to pay for that right."

First of all, note the deployment of (composition students, take note) the pathetic appeal here: the writer brings dear mum into the equation when discussing how Google is now copyright evil incarnate.

Secondly, life plus seventy is not a teensie term, a limited period of time - it's not like works are protected for five minutes and then, hey, everyone gets to access them - life plus seventy functionally puts all works created behind the copyright wall for the life of intended readers and their kids and maybe their grandkids. Yep, that's limited and av available to everyone.

Last, but not least, copyright for centuries? I'd like to split the hairs on this point. No I am not a lawyer, and all of my copyright knowledge comes from reading Title 17, Lessig, Litma, Vaidhyanathan, and news articles and accounts of domestic and international IP law and policy (I mean to say, I have no formal training but am a decently knowledgable lay person). Not a lawyer, but I do know that, though copyright has indeed been around for centuries, this life plus seventy thing is pretty darn recent (thanks, Disney) - and also, since this article appears in a US-based context, I also feel the need to add the following reminder: the USA itself was a pirate nation reprinting unauthorized versions of international texts for quite some time. We are relative newbies to this whole protectionist approach to copyright, actually, but we have taken to it like ducks to water. That's American initiative and ingenuity for you.

Ok, that rant went on longer than I had anticipated. As I said in the beginning of this post, I think the author does have some valid points, and I am somewhat with her on her conclusion. I have discussed this with colleagues, and others have published on this: when the law and the common beliefs of average citizens are at odds, there is a crisis, and I think we are there with copyright and online materials. The law says it's illegal, average joe thinks it's legal, and Google argues that even if it isn't legal it should be. Disconnect. Problems. I also, though, would like to know how Google would react if some corporate entity wanted to take their intellectual property, archive it, and make it available online, all without compensating them - and then claim that the effort assists Google.

And now it's getting close to bedtime, and I slept terribly last night, and I want to be well-rested tomorrow: I collect final papers from students, and need to get them graded and all final grades calculated by Friday.

Isn't the end of the semester grand?

- posted by laurie @ 12/12/2005 07:09:00 PM
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