Another example of misguided hubris

Antone Gonsalves, Editor, InternetWeek, notes that

Among the 10 things Google says it has found to be true is that “you can make money without doing evil.” The quote is taken from the company’s Our Philosophy page on its web site and is the kind of marketing that has helped endear the search engine to many web users. But unless founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have a direct line to the Almighty, defining what’s evil is not always easy.

The Association of American Publishers doesn’t think that Google’s scanning library books meets this criteria.

Call them crazy, but the APA is insisting that Google ask publishers before taking their property, instead of the other way around. After all, the search engine hopes to one day make money off of the books it copies, so authors and publishers would prefer to cut a deal before their property is taken.

It appears that Google is operating from another set of rules followed by capitalists: You can’t beat the profit margin when making money off something you get for free. Unlike the “doing evil” stuff, that rule is clear, even if it doesn’t have the same marketing zing.

There is a great deal of leftist sympathy in the idea that knowledge and information should be free. The open source software movement leans this way. Video and audio recording has been the subject of numerous laws and lawsuits in recent years. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks have all been enduring controversy.

The issue is, though, that much of what moves the economy is intellectual property. What gives the US the edge in world commerce is what we know how to do that our competitors don’t. As codified in patent laws, invention protection for ideas is limited to that which can be expressed in certain ways. Copyright protection is limited to a particular expression. Both of these protections only have a specific tenure. There are good arguments to the point that these protections have made a significant contribution to the health and welfare of the US.

Google is in the point of infringing on the corners and labeling the protections it dislikes as “evil.” This is a judgment, not a matter of opinion. That is what makes it hubris. How is Google to know more than the rest of us?

Contrast the Google effort to digitize the library with the Gutenberg Project. Rather than ignore copyrights, the Gutenberg Project used volunteers to amass a digital collection of literature whose copyright had expired or whose copyright owners explicity released their material to the public domain. They worked within the rules to express their ideology. They did not set themselves above anyone in expressing their views with action.

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