Copyrights and Wrongs

October 14th, 2009

You know there’s something strange happening to the world when you find yourself almost agreeing with Rupert Murdoch!

What cataclycm could cause this abberation? Google’s attempt to take over the world of books and the Associated Press’s attempts to battle them in the area of news generation.

Actually given the all powerful search engine’s involvement I’m not sure whether this post belongs here or on my SEO Blog, but I think my history in the book trade means it should be here. Though my time at James Thin Booksellers now seems an age away and most of my reading seems to be online these days, I still love books and have the greatest respect for the people that write them. At one time I also had great respect for quality journalists, particularly those of The Scotsman who were trained under Alastair Dunnett, but I seldom see any these days – the newspapers I used to devour are now riddled with spelling and grammar errors, poor writing devoid of any sense of rhythm, and little recognisable research.

The news moguls are concerned about the use of their “quality content” by other people, often without attribution, and are trying to find ways of getting people to pay for it. They see Google as a major and increasing problem because more and more they are delivering not just search results but sizable extracts, which in our short attention span world can mean that people don’t even need to visit the news sites at all. If they don’t visit then they don’t see the adverts or don’t consider paying for premium content. Since hardly anyone actually buys a physical newpaper these days that’s the end of their business model.

Now it has to be said that Associated Press don’t seem to have much a of a clue about the web and what it is or how it works. They’ve spent some years trying to avoid people linking to their sitesĀ  – without paying for the priviledge – and for a while they tried to avoid deep-linking completely. They don’t seem to get that the web is about links. They also seem to have little idea of collaboration or any form of trying to profit from their work other than by direct sales and direct advertising. Essentially they don’t seem to have adjusted to the modern wired world and have decided that Google are their main bogey-man.

Now so far you may not have much sympathy for them, but there’s another side to all this and that’s copyright. If you respect writers (and musicians as well) then you want to see them paid for their efforts or they might just stop producing the literature, quality news articles, or music that we appreciate so much, or at best they might be unable to spend so much time on it and lose quality. For that reason I’m in favour of copyright, although I appreciate that it may need to develop in order to cope with the digital world of the 21st century. While I would be happy to see increased availability of out-of-copyright and some out-of-print material, at the end of the day I can’t agree with breach of copyright.

Some people, particularly in the USA, seem to have a rather extended view of the idea of “fair use” – the principle that allows quoting of work for review or criticism for instance. Plagiarism seems to be all too common and lifting of content just because it happens to be on the web seems to be accepted. It’s in this vein that the increasing indexing and display of site content seems to be considered reasonable. But even if you accept that, how can you tolerate the wholesale copying of books and the assumption that because you did the work of copying you suddenly have the right to make money out of them. I was brought up to understand that the action of copying or storing in a reproducible medium was itself illegal – copyright notices generally say so explicitely – yet some major academic libraries have collaborated with Google in doing this very thing.

Frankly I’m astonished that major publishers didn’t immediately slap court orders on Google to prevent such copying. They didn’t seem to wake up to the fact of what was going on and didn’t protest loudly enough when Google suggested that they could opt out if they wanted to. The principle of copyright should give the owner the assumption that they don’t have to run around opting out of someone else’s attempt to steal their work. Maybe the publishers were hoping they’d get a cut later, maybe they just didn’t understand the internet in the same way as they seem not to understand ebooks.

Google almost got away with it by paying various large sums to writers and publishers organisations but now we’ve got governments intervening as they realise the problems of monopoly that are arising. American federal regulators stepped in to prevent the latest agreement going through following a wave of complaints, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the latest major figure to speak out against the whole idea as she opened the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair a few days ago.

I’m very aware that what I’ve written here is less than an iceberg tip of a very large and complex subject and I could easily spend months researching the various implications. There are, for instance, questions of privacy and confidentiality in accessing the planned book repository, questions about whether Google is trying to make profit from out of print books, and probably many more.

The trouble is we’ve already allowed Pandora’s Box to be opened by allowing the copying in the first place – mesmerised by Google’s self-appointed task to index all the information in the world. What gives them the right to do that? And what do we do if they succeed and establish a monopoly? So just this once I reckon I’m happy to see a media mogul go up against them if it means that this whole subject gets a thorough airing and people and governments realise the implications of allowing copyright to be ignored.

Entry Filed under: Books,Social/Political

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