NEW YORK -- A lawsuit by the Authors Guild and sundry others against Google provokes some thought in me on writing, publishing, the Internet and this wondrous thing called Google. The lawsuit alleges that vast copyright infringement is about to be perpetrated by Google. This $90 billion search engine is about to increase its business by scanning the entire contents of five of the world's leading libraries and making the contents of that vast scan searchable for free to anyone capable of gazing into a computer. The problem is that much of the printed material to be scanned by Google is copyrighted and ought not to be used without payment to publishers and authors. This strikes me as indisputable, but before reviewing the issues raised by the Authors Guild, allow me to bring up problems with the Internet that have troubled me for as long as I have used the Internet.
When I go to a library to borrow a book I can be pretty certain that the contents of the book have not been tampered with. When I buy a magazine I can be completely certain that I am getting a writer's work as it appeared in that magazine. Can I be equally certain when I take writing off the Internet that it has not been adulterated? Can I be sure of its authenticity? I doubt it.
This raises quite another point but one related to the question of the authority of what passes across the Internet. A lot of the information abounds with error, some of it difficult to discern. The representatives of old media who wail that the Internet suffers from a lack of editors have a point. I just have no idea of how to resolve their concerns consistent with sound libertarian principles -- but to return to the question of the authenticity of writing carried across the Internet.
The other day I was talking to a writer about an article of his that I read. The article in question I thought had been published in New York magazine. He told me it was from the New Yorker, a minor point of clarification, perhaps, but suggestive of the problem I am raising. As the pages had been printed from the Internet they did not have the New Yorker's distinctive type style. In fact, any other evidence that the piece came from one magazine or another could be faked. For that matter, even the contents of the piece could be faked. Someone sending me this piece across the Internet could be deceiving me in a way that someone delivering a magazine to me or even photocopied pages of a magazine could not.
Print that comes across the Internet is not as trustworthy as print that one buys in a store or picks up in a library. Such print is more difficult to obtain and more expensive, but it is more real. The books that Google intends to scan may be adulterated. I think that is a problem. Undoubtedly the Internet is here to stay and will increasingly be used to convey print, but it has its problems. In the case of Google there is the other problem of not compensating publishers and authors for their work. Both have intellectual property rights that must be respected if publishing and writing are to continue as profitable endeavors.
Google proposes to scan and make available great chunks of books for free. It might be one thing to make books from the public domain, say Shakespeare or Chaucer, free. But it is a kind of pilfering to lift work that is copyrighted. Google claims that it is only doing on a vast scale what libraries do on a small scale. Yet there is a difference. Google is a commercial enterprise, a library is not. Google is making a profit from ill-gotten material.
There is a way that the interests of both sides in this squabble can be resolved. In the Napster controversy musicians were being ripped off when their fans were uploading their music and distributing it freely. The musicians and their representatives fought this infringement of copyright and now get fair compensation via iTunes and similar arrangements. Doubtless this wondrous thing called Google will arrive at a similar arrangement. Yet for now there is a legal battle and only the lawyers can be happy.