Among its many other tentacles, Google has an arm dedicated to digitising the world's library into a searchable database. It does so, it claims, to democratize knowledge and to protect the intellectual and cultural heritages of the nations it has extended this ambitious project to. Predictably, there are publishers who are not fans of the practice, including several in France. This week, a few of the largest of these French publishers were able to convince a French court that the practice violates copyright laws, and the court, in turn punished Google with fines and injunctions.
This ruling puts Google in a sticky situation. Thus far, in building its over 1 million book library, it has depended on a combination of agreements with publishers, particularly in the US, books whose copyright protections have been lifted, and interpretations of fair use laws. The legal safety net that the company has come to rely upon has always been a tenuous one, a fact underscored by the observation that it is easier find legal Q&As and analysis of the project on Google's website than facts about the project. For example, the agreements it has come to in the US with publishers to avoid copyright law are being reviewed for antitrust violations, and fair use laws of the US do not apply abroad.
No one with a realistic worldview would imagine that Google embarked on this project for purely socially responsible purposes. However, profit motives and social benefit cannot always be neatly separated, one of those rare positive externalities that make economic analysis a little less dismal. Here, the end result of Google's efforts is making some titles more accessible to the masses, and legitimate protection of rare works. The French government itself would find it difficult to argue with these endgoals, as it has undertaken a similar project of its own.
It is true that the ruling in France this week underscores the hazards that arise from a look-before-you-leap strategy such as the one that Google has adopted in its project. However it also underscores the fact that Google would probably not have been able to get this project off of the ground if it had attempted to broker deals ahead of time, as well as the leverage that it has gained by moving headfirst into it. For example, everything is still in place in the US for now, and the ruling in France is more likely to serve as a bargaining chip for the publishers than the final word on this interesting question. There is also demand for technology and resources in this genre, as seen by the overwhelming success of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle. And, despite novel and fascinating legal issues, consumer demand typically has a way of leading to legal evolution.
Google's book scanning project is ambitious, interesting, questionably illegal, and was rushed into at breakneck speed. It also serves a valid social purpose and has the backing of the public. Observers should expect additional suits, and even perhaps rulings against the internet giant. However, in the end, its current pole position in the area will likely produce fruitful results for both the company and the citizens of the world.