Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

CopNews often comes in a series of blips and joining those together starts to give you the bigger picture or raise questions not answered in the often sanitized press releases. Last week we wrote on the then breaking news of Microsoft’s decision to walk away from Live book search and its impact. Today we read in the Guardian, that Belgian newspapers are asking for €49m in damages from Google for publishing and storing content without paying, or asking permission.

Whether we are talking Google News or Google Books we are talking ‘digital land grab’. The process is simple - digitize and be dammed, or scan first and ask later. In the US the pending Orphan Act will make this sort of activity easier, but although we see the omnivore that is Google, there are others busy exploiting the availability of materials and the inability of many to achieve, digitize or in some cases know who owns what. Public domain book works are being scanned and digitised in droves by many. Some are also venturing into that murkier area between public domain and in print.

We see two problems, one controlling the hovering up of today’s material and secondly the question of who owns what?

Last year Google lost a lawsuit to a number of French-language Belgian newspapers and was forced to remove their content from Google News and their search engine that had been taken without permission. Copiepresse, an organization that represents the French and German language Belgian press, is now seeking damages based on articles stored via Google Search since 2001 and on Google News since it was launched in Belgium in 2006.

Google has deep pockets and has taken a position which has contested the ruling, arguing that they drive traffic to publishers' websites and that Google News only shows headlines and snippets and thumbnail images. That’s ok then! Search and index the total work, take ownership of the digitalized content, but only show limited content today. The arrogance of such logic is at best questionable and at worst fascicle.

Today, we now find ourselves at the mercy of Google and without that other omnivore predator. Publishers have in many cases argued it is healthy to give them content as they drive up sales, others that they are stealing it. Whatever your viewpoint the question that must be answered is what do they intend to do with it tomorrow? Will they always us it as they do today? Can they re assign it to others, either in part or whole? Can the copyright owner revert rights, given or taken, if the copyright ownership of the original work changes? Can the originator object? History is littered with cases where the result was not what people expected to happen at the beginning and where market dominance created a new venture not previously envisaged.

Publishing is a rights business yet we often seem to struggle managing them and the older the content the murkier rights become. Today is the right time to revisit the question of Google’s Book programme and not continue to go blindly forward as if nothing has changed.

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