Recap: In response to publisher anxieties & thinly-veiled threats of litigation, Google is implementing an opt-out provision in its scan-copyrighted-library-books program, and delaying scans of copyrighted books until November. [google blog] This has been widely reported as Google backing down. See, e.g., “Chilled by Publishers” (BoingBoing), “Google Sells Out Users” (Copyfight).
Siva Vaidhyanathan had a different take, predicated largely (it seems to me) on the fact that Google is a for-profit corporation. For once, I disagree with Siva, and on two grounds: both with library exceptionalism in this instance and the take on American Geophysical Union. Siva:
Google did not have the right to make wholesale copies of millions of copyrighted books without permission from the copyright holders. Google’s original plan fails every possible fair use test ever tried. See, for example, American Geophysical Union v. Texaco.
If copyright is to mean anything at all, then corporations may not copy entire works that they have never purchased without permission for commercial gain.
Usually I agree (not slavishly. who said slavishly?) with everything Siva (and his minions on Sivacracy) has to say, but I have to disagree with him here on a couple of points.
First, the for-profit corporation issue. Yes, Google is a for-profit corporation, and while they try not to be evil, one could argue that they won’t be able to help it. Siva wishes that libraries would take greater advantage of fair use, and so do I — libraries are wonderful and should be able to do anything they want including lots of things they don’t do now (like, yeah, scan in everything they own). But I take issue with this form of library exceptionalism. Libraries should push fair use in the service and interests of their users, history, and humanity. But libraries are not the sole beneficiaries of fair use, nor should they be. For-profit corporations, not-for-profit corporations, heck, even tax-exempt religions — all should be able to exercise fair use broadly.
Well, Siva says Google is not a library. It’s true that Google is not the mom-and-apple-pie ALA version of a downtown library, complete with modern atrium and skylights for Mayoral gatherings. But I think we have to push on “library” for a bit. The Internet Archive is certainly a library. My home collection is certainly a library. (It even circulates, and I have remote storage, and I recently began a belated investment in DVDs.) Libraries may be private, semi-private, public; for- or not-for-profit; paper or digital. Why is Google not a library?
And tactically speaking, it just doesn’t make sense for information activists / copyfighters to start downwardly limiting various users’ sets of rights. Ultimately, this will come back to bite us: what if libraries start to look more like corporations? In fact, library exceptionalism has not served the library community well: Despite numerous statutory exemptions for libraries, librarians have still retreated into deep conservatism and fear of copyright liability. Librarians realize that the laws governing information transmission are porous, and the laws that apply to for-profit corporations will also affect not-for-profit libraries.
Second, Siva cites American Geophysical Union, 60 F.3d 913 (2d Cir. 1994), very quickly in support of his point that “Google’s original plan fails every possible fair use test ever tried. See, for example, American Geophysical Union v. Texaco.”
AGU is not the law of the land, much less every possible fair use test ever tried. While influential, AGU is the law of the 2nd Circuit. (Not the Fifth, although my brain always short-circuits me there, linking “Texaco” to “Texas/5th Circuit”.) I like to remember that fair use is a fact-based, multi-factor analysis. Paraphrasing one of my copyright professors, multi-factor tests = completely unpredictable results. Each and every case looks quite different and yes, different caselaw applies. There’s a limit to how far you can draw even an influential appellate precedent, as the p2p cases show.
Unfortunately, Siva and everyone else likes to just drop-cite AGU: It was a broad decision that, famously, stands for the idea that potential licensing revenue counts as an (apparently significant) effect on the market. That’s scary, and big, and consequently the decision weighs heavily in the set of bad anti-fair-use opinions. But over-reading it has led to significant nail-biting in the library community. I do agree with Siva that it’s important to remember that AGU took place in a for-profit environment; in fact, I’ve argued that not-for-profit libraries & archives have a lot less to worry about than they think they do from AGU. But the for-profit/not-for-profit status is not the be-all and end-all of the story. AGU demonstrates a sophisticated relationship between the various fair use factors. The potential licensing revenue was significant in large part because of the for-profit status. That means that it’s not the horror story that librarians sometimes fear, but it also means that you can’t take the fair use factors as a simplistic checklist: for-profit or non-profit? market effect (including lost licensing) or no market effect? It doesn’t work that way. The market that is considered is necessarily shaped by the environment in which the alleged infringement took place. Texaco was a for-profit corporation with the resources to do licensing. Librarians have been scared because the lost-licensing-revenue aspect looks even more insane in a public or academic library context than it did in Texaco’s internal special library, routing & private desk copy context. But that particular horror has never fully paraded itself, probably because the outcome is so insane outside of the particular circumstances of Texaco. Context is everything.
And, again thinking tactically, I would argue we ought to work to limit the reactionary conservatism this case fosters, rather than trying to puff it up even more. By drop-citing AGU in the service of anti-corporate use of information, Siva made the copyright maximalists’ case. And that’s not good for libraries or Google.
A little aside: Derek Slater disagrees with Siva on AGU, too, from a different angle. Derek points out that the Appellate Court found “undue emphasis” on commerciality in the District Court’s opinion. Derek’s point is well-taken, but I still read the commercial context as significant. Between the District Court & the Appellate Court opinions, the Supreme Court issued Campbell, which expressly reversed any presumption that for-profit uses were not fair. The Appellate Court wanted to uphold the lower court’s ruling, but had to deal with Campbell; hence the nod to Campbell. But the Appellate Court was really pointing out that Texaco’s use was still a traditional library use, even if in a for-profit environment.
We do not mean to suggest that the District Court overlooked these principles; in fact, the Court discussed them insightfully, see 802 F. Supp. at 12-13. Rather, our concern here is that the Court let the for-profit nature of Texaco’s activity weigh against Texaco without differentiating between a direct commercial use and the more indirect relation to commercial activity that occurred here. Texaco was not gaining direct or immediate commercial advantage from the photocopying at issue in this case – i.e., Texaco’s profits, revenues, and overall commercial performance were not tied to its making copies of eight Catalysis articles for Chickering. Cf. Basic Books, Inc. v. Kinko’s Graphics Corp., 758 F. Supp. 1522 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) (revenues of reprographic business stemmed directly from selling unauthorized photocopies of copyrighted books). Rather, Texaco’s photocopying served, at most, to facilitate Chickering’s research, which in turn might have led to the development of new products and technology that could have improved Texaco’s commercial performance. Texaco’s photocopying is more appropriately labeled an “intermediate use.” See Sega Enterprises, 977 F.2d at 1522-23 (labeling secondary use “intermediate” and finding first factor in favor of for-profit company, even though ultimate purpose of copying was to develop competing commercial product, because immediate purpose of copying computer code was to study idea contained within computer program).
 We do not consider Texaco’s status as a for-profit company irrelevant to the fair use analysis.
The Appellate Court then goes on to talk about the value to the user of the allegedly infringing activity. This discussion is critical, because it sets up the fourth factor discussion about the lost revenues.
As a pragmatic reading, I see this tweaking of analysis as a way for the Appellate Court to deal with Campbell. In its effect, the case has been bad; it has, as I’ve stated, been an oft-cited case when librarians are playing conservative. In its reasoning, the case is also bad: the potential-lost-revenue argument is virtually boundless. But my sense is that the potential-lost-revenue argument, although terrible, has not yet fulfilled its potential — maybe because it is so boundless.
In short, I think American Geophysical Union is over-rated, and the commercial context is critical.
… a bit more coming later hopefully
update 8/14: The massive amounts of media coverage given to the Google withdrawal confirm my opinion that tactically this sucks, for libraries, authors, readers and anybody else who actually uses copyrights. So much of this coverage is described as a copyright flap, Google’s copyright misstep, etc. The bounds of fair use have just shrunk in the court of public opinion, and that’s a much longer-lasting loss than American Geophysical Union, Napster or any other case.
update 8/15: See, this is why I like Siva so well: I wish I had time today to respond to all of the good comments zooming around the blogosphere and e-mail. …. They are all helping me formulate my arguments better. I can’t help but compare favorably this response to certain other thread-baiting that’s happening on a nearby (non-IP-related) blog. And I know Siva will eventually come up with some very cogent ideas on this issue that will make me go hmm.