Because We Can

In the computer world, there is a fight brewing between the hulking behemoth market-leader and a ragtag group of scrappy underdogs. It pits a large corporation with a vision of informational hegemony against lone individuals, laboring on their own to perfect their intellectual creations. What the individuals have on their side is the simplicity and basic rightness of their idea. What the Gargantuan company has on its side is power — and the desire by many, or even most, individuals to have the things they want come easier.

This is not, as you might think, a fight between the imperial Microsoft with its Windows and the libertarian Linux devotees with their open-source dreams. It is, in a strange turn of events, between the search-darling Google and the old-fashioned, quaint authors of musty books now moldering in the nation’s university libraries.

Google, the company whose guiding motto is, “Don’t be evil,” has announced that it is moving ahead on its plan to scan library books and post their contents on the Internet, in searchable form. Major university libraries are complicit.

But it seems the authors of these antiquated devices called books, speaking through the voice of the Author’s Guild, hold to the notion that they — the authors — ought to have some measure of control over what happens to the books whose copyrights they own.

On my bookshelf, I have a large sheaf of Xeroxed pages, dating from my days as an undergraduate. They are bound by a plastic doodad, and in my thumb-fingered script I have scrawled “Being and Time” in Marks-A-Lot across them. It is a poor student’s version of a book that was very expensive at the time, an annotated edition of Martin Heidegger’s crowning contribution to twentieth century philosophy.

I have always felt a bit ashamed of this set of photocopied pages. And not just because I have since turned more Kantian. It’s because I didn’t buy that book — I copied it from the library. For all these many years, I knew that, even though it was for personal use, I had misappropriated it. To be blunt, I had stolen it.

Google tells us they are not going to be so brazen as I was. They will only allow portions of books to be posted, and they will only scan books that are out of print. But, read carefully, and they make it clear that they will only follow these rules for the time being, leaving open the option of scanning in-print and in-copyright books at some later date.

One worries that, in an age when privacy policies are ”updated” multiple times a year, such assurances may not be worth the paper they are printed on.

The tide of the nation is running against the authors and with Google. Everywhere you look, people are clamoring for online access to that which used to be bound and printed. Old newspapers? Let me search the Web. Details on products I wish to purchase? You’d better have a website to back up that catalog. Bank records? E-statements, thank you!

It’s not just happening in the world of commerce. It’s across the board. Just the other day I was with a group of government officials who have authority over public records. They were talking about, among other things, an urge toward greater transparency when it comes to such things. A common response is to make public information more public — on the Internet. It struck me that keeping something off of the Internet is tantamount to keeping it secret.

If something isn’t online it’s just about invisible. Just ask Google. Indeed, this is the basis for their response to the authors: you will get more exposure.

No more will people need to amble down to the library to thumb through your works. Instead, they will be able to grab snippets of it based on search keywords. Your paragraphs will flow more freely to your audience. You will gain more ”eyeballs.”

But, I fear, not much more. I am told by some authors that they craft their books in units rather larger than single paragraphs. Sometimes, in fact, they intend whole chapters to hang together and form an extended argument. The piecemeal approach may do violence not only to authors’ ownership of their own works, but also to the creative process itself. How do you write anything longer than an executive summary when you know upfront that one day it may be chopped into bits to satisfy someone searching for ”Paris Hilton” or ”Able Danger?”

The idea of ”copyright” has always been a balancing act between the rights of the creator of a work, and the rights of others to quote and enjoy it. This is not a new question that the Google plan is raising.

But we are in new territory. The Internet has pumped up the volume. Do we want to listen to the whole album, or just the single?

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