Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sociology Memo: Should the World's Libraries Be Digitized?

When people start arguing against the right to read, I get pretty suspicious where their motives are. Keith presents some very odd arguments to start out with before he goes into the old copyright-violating argument. Copyright violation is really the only one that should be taken seriously, as the ones preceding aren't very good. First of all, if I go and buy a book, I do not thereafter need the author or publisher's permission to make a copy of it for personal use, or to write in my copy, or to lend it to my friend, or to even donate it to a library where others will be able to check it out and read it for free. The sticky water is when I try to sell the copy, but the existence of used book stores and resells on Amazon make it fairly clear that this is not an issue either.

What Google is doing is saving time and money, both now and for the future. Scan the whole thing, and if the whole thing is copyrighted, then simply restrict the majority of it from being displayed. Allowing the entire book to be indexed for search, however, is a net benefit to all parties. The author and publisher, because their book will receive more exposure and potentially more sales if people find the snippets intriguing enough, and for general people interested in some subject or in writing a research paper. Keith argues that this could destroy the value of books if people somehow got their hands on them for free. The true value of books cannot be destroyed: the true value of books is in what they give to humanity. Copyright was never a fundamental system, and before copyright laws people still wrote a lot. Copyright is merely allowed by various governments as an incentive to get more works out there, for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

His next weak argument is related to a destruction of value, but is aimed at an implied lack of security on Google's part. Yes, every system has security vulnerabilities, though Google's is particularly secure. In any case, it's not like The Matrix wasn't freely available to download prior to the Google hack. In fact, a huge portion of copyrighted material is available through torrent networks that involve little to no effort to find. Yet empirical evidence does not agree with the claims of the copyright holders: as "pirating" (a horrible phrase that simply means "copying"; there is no theft as the original remains) has increased, oddly, the profits of the movie and other media industries have also increased. In particular for those who have embraced a new model of business that involves electronic distribution.

On to copyrighted, I think Google wins simply because it's applying its already existing means of ``violating copyright'', i.e. scraping bits and pieces from published websites of copyrighted material with its search engine, to something more than mere web pages, such as books. (It has already been doing this with movies and public domain books.) Of course they're going to use this to make money through advertising, but that does not mean it's a bad thing, especially when the benefit to humanity is greater than any money Google may make or publishers (authors make precious little as it is) claim to lose (with such claims being unsupported by evidence). Thus I think point one under fair use is applicable, that Google's purpose is for profit but it's also, more importantly, for the benefit of humanity. Point two, books are books. I'm not sure how court cases have ruled in the past, but at the most I can see Google simply paying a small amount to some entity or another similar to how radio stations or libraries work. Point three, Google has made it clear that they're copying the entire book, but not displaying it all. Security issues aside, if it's not displaying it all, there's nothing wrong with copying it. I can make full text backups of any books I own, the trouble only comes when I start trying to sell all those copies for large sums of money or as if they were my own. In point four, I have already mentioned that the claims of lost sales are unsubstantiated. This is true in the music and movie and game industries in their wars on the consumer, I have found no sources claiming it is any different for book authors.

When I see such enthusiastic fighting of this, I'm reminded of Richard Stallman's short story about the Right to Read. In it he paints the picture of a dystopian future where it is a criminal act to let someone else read the books you have purchased a license to, and there is software in place to determine who reads what and where. Besides simple literature being restricted, people don't even have control over their own computers, something Stallman has fought long against in his campaign for Free (as in freedom) and Open Software. Microsoft and Apple continue their abuses against the tinkerer, and laws exist in place to benefit corporations, rather than humanity. It is this future Stallman fears, and I admit I don't like where our world is going either. Fortunately Google has become a very powerful company, and so there is hope they will succeed in this book project.

Posted on 2010-05-17 by Jach

Tags: intellectual property, language, memo, morality


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