Google Scares the Crap out of Me

Whoa, lord, sometimes you read things and you think, “man, it’s a shame more people who interact with Google every day (i.e. all of us) don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the Google books lawsuits.”

But check this out from over at The Melville House blog:

Google, meanwhile, made the bizarre argument that most writers don’t own their own copyright, no matter that the rights page of most books state rather exactly the opposite. But Google attorney Daralyn Durie told the judge that “Many authors contracted that right away to publishers.”

This seems to be such a fundamental misunderstanding of copyright law that either Durie is incompetent (and I have my days with Google where I think that’s possible) or Google is trying out a redefinition of copyright. And considering how small books are in the grand scheme of copyright issues Google might have, it seems to me that trying it out at the book level is a way to sneak a foot in the door.

See, the thing is that, yes, most commercial authors do indeed specify in the contract that the book is copyrighted in their name. But, yes, some authors, especially authors with non-trade publishers, do indeed find their books copyrighted in the name of the publisher. In real life, the difference between those two approaches matters barely a whit. The only person who can own a copyright is the creator of the work (let’s ignore work-for-hire-s right now). You can assign the administration of the copyright to whomever you want, including the publisher, and the publisher can copyright it in their name on your behalf, but if you’ve ever sat down to fill out the registration form, you know that, no matter how the book is ©whomevered on the copyright page, the government wants to know the most information about who the creator is and how the person claiming the copyright came to get permission from the creator to do so.

It is true that, in effect, when you sign a book contract, the publisher acts, for all practical purposes, like they “own” your copyright. But they don’t.

It’s a slight distinction, but an important one. After all, if the publisher really “owned” your copyright, the right would never revert back to you.

It’s easier to understand if we think of the creators as the bank and publishers as the home buyer. Yes, as long as you’re paying your mortgage and meeting the conditions laid out in your mortgage agreement, no one gives a shit if you say you “bought” a house or that you are a “home-owner” even though, technically, that puppy is the bank’s.

Copyright is similar. Even if the publishers say they own the copyright, they are really just holding it. And there are mechanisms by which the author can get it back.

So, the question becomes–why would Google want to advance an understanding of the nature of copyright that actually allowed ownership of copyright to be transferable? Why would they want you to be able to create something not covered by work-for-hire statutes that could be taken from you forever and you could never get it back?

Think of all of the ways you interact with Google–Youtube, Blogger, etc.–by creating content they benefit from. Right now, even if their EULAs allow them to use your content (mostly to power their search engine), they don’t allow Google to own the copyright on your work, which means they can’t straight-up monetize it without getting permission from you and, potentially, cutting you in.

But if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on this being the start of Google testing the waters to see how much courts are willing to accept that copyright ownership is indeed transferable.

And that should be something anyone who creates content and publishes it on the web keeps their eye on.


7 thoughts on “Google Scares the Crap out of Me

  1. I’d agree that it is the foot in the door. As in all facets of life these days it seems there is a drive to wrest all the money away from the ones who do the actual work and put the cash into the hands of the 1%. Sigh. I sound like a paranoid crazy person but I don’t think I’m so wrong.

  2. I think it’s going to be worse (and for us poor people, funnier) than that. I think there’s a movement to wrest money and property away from people and put it in the hands of corporations.

    The 1% will be the last to feel this, because they’ll have the most money to fight it, but, you know, when I don’t own my own blog posts, that’s precedent for Arriana Huffinton not owning hers.

    There are a lot of people who think that their money has bought them safety, but they’re going to be wrong, because they’re not more powerful than the multi-national corporations.

  3. Heh. nm wins the internet today.

    Seriously; Google ought to scare the shit out of everyone. They have spent the last 10 years trying to figure out a way to make being a travel agent for the Internet translate into owning all the hotels.

    Their actual work product is scant; the only advantage they have is in being a gateway, so they are kicking down every possible door.

  4. Yeah, my experiences with them all eventually boil down to “It doesn’t matter how insistent you are that everyone has to do a before you’ll do b, I can’t do a. Can’t we negotiate an a.5?” and being met with what feels to me like literal confusion.

    I don’t think it’s on-purpose malevolence, but I think that they’re so used to being so big and powerful that they literally think they can force everyone to interact with them how they want to be interacted with.

    You literally cannot negotiate with them. It’s like they don’t get the concept. You can say “I’d like to do this thing with you, which will benefit us both, but I need you to do x instead of y” and they’re like “But we always get our way.”

    Even when you say “and yes, you’ll still get your way, I just need you to do x instead of y” they can’t do it. It’s like they can’t imagine that everything doesn’t go exactly how they think it should all the time.

    This, I honestly think, is going to be Google’s downfall–expecting that the whole world also runs by EULA and everyone makes the same agreement or they don’t get to play, instead of realizing that most businesses run by making contracts with other businesses and, while the contracts might have boilerplate language, they can be modified to meet the unique needs of both parties.

  5. You think it’s gonna be their downfall, but I think it means that they’ll just run roughshod over everything or everybody. Because you won’t get them to do b. So either you’ll resign yourself to not getting what you want, which they don’t mind, or you’ll knuckle under and go through all sorts of contortions so that you end up doing a, just the way they want. They don’t need you, whoever the “you” is.

    I mean, I work in a business where almost all of the contracts get negotiated. But there is one (type of) participant in the business that tells the parties they do (one type of) business with “here’s the contract; sign it as is or not at all” and because there will always be enough parties eager to do that kind of business that the inflexible participant can just move on to the next party if the first party doesn’t sign. Same with Google, only more so.

  6. That’s what you’d think, but it recently hasn’t been my only experience with them. Just the other week, even before I could realize I was in a game of chicken with them, they blinked and gave me my way.

    I don’t quite know what to make of that.

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