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30 Oct 2005

The tollbooth model of intellectual property Copyright Law

Google has a new service called Google Print for Libraries. They've made a deal with five large libraries to scan in most of their books to create an index along the lines of Google's web index.

Predictably, the Authors' Guild has filed a suit to try to make them stop. There's a variety of issues involved, some of which I'll try to address in subsequent messages, but once you cut through the bombast, the crux of the issue is that they think they deserve to be paid.

This is the toll booth model of intellectual property. Lots of people with small bits of IP engage in wishful thinking and conclude that if there's a bazillion dollars flowing somewhere and .001% of it happens to flow in the vicinity of their IP, by golly, they want their commission on .001% of a bazillion.

Unfortunately, in the real world, that ain't how it works. I have written a lot of books about the Internet, in which there are a lot of pictures of web sites. I have always maintained that the use of these images falls squarely within fair use (confirmed in practice by a complete lack of threats or complaints over the past 12 years), but for a while in the maximum greed part of the bubble, my publisher was demanding permission for everything.

So what happened? For about half of the screen shots I would have used, I decided I didn't care that much, and I did something else. For the rest, we had someone send them a letter asking for permission. If the answer was "OK" or perhaps "OK if you acknowledge us on the copyright page", we used it. If they set conditions or asked for payment, we dropped it. As a result, the books in that era had a lot of screen shots of the Census Bureau and other public domain sites, and nobody got paid anything. I think my actions were completely typical of what real authors do under those circumstances.

The alternative to leakage and no money isn't leakage and money, it's no leakage and no money. Would that be to anyone's benefit? I don't think so. Considering that the goal of the copyright clause in the US Constitution is to get material published and eventually into the public domain, a strict interpretation that made incidental copies illegal and made it impossible to do projects that use harmless copies of other people's stuff would also be contrary to public policy.

posted at: 23:58 :: permanent link to this entry :: 0 comments
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