Google, Microsoft and Fair Use

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 3/6/2007

The two bad boys of the computer industry are going at it. In the latest installment of this saga, Microsoft is making the claim that Googleís book search capability is an abuse of fair use protected by copyright law. They make the claim that Microsoftís similar capability is different and does not violate fair use. Iíll let them and the courts hash this one out, but I do have a few thoughts about some things that are suggested by this issue.

Authors Deserve to be Paid

It is a sad fact that we have reached a point in our society where people expect to get information free. It is as if they deserve to get it free. If there were not laws in place, people would make copies of anything and everything and not pay the author. Instead of buying a subscription, a person might read news items on the internet. People might make a copy of a CD or DVD without permission and see nothing wrong with it. They have the idea that if the author didnít want them to copy it then he should have done more to stop them. Some people wonít buy a book until it comes out on the discount racks.

It takes a lot of effort to produce and sell the content that is generated by authors and content creators. The author will only get a small percentage of the price of a book. Even if he self publishes the book, there is the cost of printing that will eat away at his profit. It can take hundreds of hours to write a book. If the author knows the subject well, he may be able to turn out a book in much less time, but this is because he has already paid his dues and gained the experience required. The work doesnít end with getting the book in print. The author must spend time doing things that lead to convincing people to purchase the book. This may be anything from posting content on the web to doing book signings. It all takes time.

Imagine that you have spend weeks and months working on a project. You might have dreams of it being a big success, but in reality, all you really want is to get paid for the time you put into it. Then before you get paid, someone destroys your work. All of that time is wasted and no one will pay for it. That is the situation in which most authors might find themselves if someone makes there work freely available on the internet. They never expected to get rich off of the sales of the book. All they really wanted was for the few people who actually read their book to pay them enough to make it worth their while. If people are reading the book online and not buying the book then the author will not get paid for his efforts.

Fair Use Must be Protected

In school, I remember being taught how to cite the works of others in term papers. It was okay to quote someone. That is one of the things that is protected by fair use. Fair use also allows us to do things like use excerpts from a book to prove that the author is an idiot or an expert without the reader needing to go find the book and look it up for himself. Fair use is an important part of the protection of freedom of speech.

If fair use is allowed to be abused, by Google, Microsoft or anyone else, then there is the risk of laws being put into place that will make it even harder to determine whether the use of something falls under fair use or not. When I write and refer to other peopleís work, I am very cognizant of the concept of fair use. I do not want to infringe on someone elseís rights. For one thing, I want to get paid for my work and it is only fair that other authors do as well. Another reason is that I have no desire to get tied up in a court case. Even if the court were to rule in my favor, it would be a complete waste of my time. It is nice to have the concept of fair use as a kind of safety net. Even after making an effort to know the policy of various companies and asking permission to copy something when needed, it is something of a relief to know that because of the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution, I donít have to have permission to copy everything. If people are allowed to abuse this protection we lose it in order to protect the authorís right to fair compensation.

Truly Free Content

No content is truly free. This article is free, but I have put time into it. An author might write an article to get a point across. An author might write an article to encourage sales or contributions. Often it is a combination of the two. If the content is free, you have no obligation to pay the author or to contribute to his cause. Even so, if you want the author to be able to offer even more free content, you need to support him by contributing. It is a little like the PBS pledge drives. If you like commercial free television then you encourage them to produce more of it by contributing. But if you donít like the shows they offer then donít pay for it.

Suppose you see a book that is available free on Googleís website. You might read the book online and have no intention of reading it in print. That is fine, but if you like the book and would like to see more from the author then the thing to do would be to purchase the book anyway. If you really donít want to pay the full price then find out how much the book would cost you, multiply by 25 percent and give the author that amount of money. He would rather sell a book, but cold hard cash is good too.