Shootouts at the Not-OK Corral

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a lengthy look at goliath Google as a lighting rod for lawsuits, complete with an in-your-face New Yawkerish slug – “We’re Google. So Sue Us.” Digital copyright law is a real frontier, complete with its own “not OK” corrals. And there seem to more and more shootouts lately.

Is it because Google has deep pockets? Partly. Is it because they’re big and arrogant and they make us mad? Well … sure. But it’s also a response to the shift in the way people look for information. Libraries have had to work through our “we’re better than Google” sulks, but the information and entertainment industries are just getting started. The Times story points out it’s not just about winning damages.

There are several cases, focusing on questions of intellectual property and trademark protection, that challenge Google’s whole way of doing business. These plaintiffs are suing Google to protect their well-established practices; their interest is not so much in remuneration as it is in getting Google to change its approach.

Is it working? The jury’s still out, but it doesn’t look good. Take Belgian news organizations. They sued Google over linking to their content in Google News. Now they’re doing the same with MSN. What have they gained so far? Their content is no longer indexed. Those who start a news search online won’t find the major Belgian news outlets in the mix. C’est la guerre.

All of which is making me scratch my head. Doesn’t a link from an online aggregator lead readers to the newspaper’s website and to their own online advertising? Won’t that advertising reach a wider audience? According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s excellent report on the State of the News Media 2006, that’s where advertising revenue growth is. And it’s the only place where there’s growth.

It’s sadly reminiscent of the Tasini decision. In that case, freelance writers sued news organizations and their aggregators, successfully, because they got no revenue from online repackaging of articles for which news organizations had not paid electronic rights. Rather than offer writers a share, newspapers stripped content from online databases and made sure electronic rights are now boilerplate in all their contracts.

Did anyone win? Nope.

It also reminds me of the excitement about e-books in the book world at the turn of the millenium. Trade publishers were so intent on figuring out the angles they forgot one thing: the reader. So any new market that might have been generated was largely neglected while contestants waved their knives over the pie. I get the biggest piece! No, me!!

Maybe there’s a lesson in this for libraries. Make your content available in whatever way works for the people who might benefit from what you do. Let them discover what you have in new ways, not just your way. If Google (or some other new kid on the block) installs a new door to your library, don’t call the police and report a break-in. Get another welcome mat and put on an extra pot of coffee, because you’re going to have company. And think about how many new doors you can open – so that the traffic isn’t all coming from one direction, exposed to one set of billboards as they make the trip.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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