Larry Lessig recently posted a video version of long slide presentation on fair use and Google Book Search, which has prompted some very thoughtful reaction from Randy Picker (in conversation with Doug Lichtman and Geoff Manne) and Rebecca Tushnet (sorry; can’t get the link to the post just right).

Randy appears to squeeze Larry’s argument into a transactions cost corset, which, as Rebecca reminds us, doesn’t quite fit. But I read Randy’s argument as suggesting that the fair use issue at stake in Google Book Search, at least as Larry and Google present it, is really quite narrow, since Google itself is proceeding on a consent-basis with respect to copyrighted works in print. If that’s right, then the fuss over the project may be overblown; this may turn out to be not-quite-a-bet-the-Internet-case after all.

UPDATE: Along with Randy, I understand that Google’s position is that the “opt out” option that Google offers applies to books in their entirety. If a copyright holder objects, the book disappears from the database. That’s my (and Randy’s) interpretation of Larry Lessig’s characterization of what Google is doing. As a descriptive matter, is that an incorrect interpretation of Google’s position? Does Google take the position that fair use protects Google’s making “snippets” of those copies available in response to search requests, even over publishers’ objections? (Google does, I believe, take the position that fair use protects snippets of copyrighted works if publishers say nothing.) So that the negotiating, then, has to do with whether publishers will allow more than mere snippets to be made available.

The question in short, is this. What’s the baseline, and what is the minimum that Google is willing to accept? For copyrighted works, is the baseline “copy + snippet,” so that Google’s opt-out policy apply to deviations downward, and the least that Google will accept is zero, or is the baseline “copy and full-text results,” and publishers may by objection negotiate down to Google’s offering only snippets — an alternative minimum result? (It’s conceivable that “copy plus full text” is the baseline and zero search results is what Google is willing to accept, but I haven’t heard any discussion suggesting that this is in fact the case.)

3 thoughts on “Google Book Search and Transactions Costs

  1. Doug Lichtman

    Mike –

    I think we have our signals crossed. I’ll email you on the side and then hopefully you can come back and correct this? Basically, my original point to you was different: in the event of *silence* from a publisher, Google asserts that it can publish snippets. That is not “negotiation” as Larry and Randy and you describe it. That is instead a claim by Google that it is “fair use” to take snippets of copyrighted work without permission.

    In short, change “even over publishers’ objections” to “even over copyright owner silence” and you have the basic point right. (Of course, that makes the “negotiations” sentence that follows almost non-sensical, since these are not “negotiations” in any sense of that word.)

    Hope that helps. Sorry for the confusion.

    ps. Standard disclaimer applies: I am involved in this dispute, but my comments here in no way reflect anyone’s opinion but my own.

  2. Mike Madison

    I’ve edited the update slightly to add the distinction between two arguments. What happens if a copyright holder objects to snippets? One possibility is that Google argues that fair use applies to snippets of copyrighted works so long as the copyright holder is silent, but Google is willing to withdraw snippets upon objection and to post them, or any excerpts, only via negotiated agreement with the copyright holder. A second possibility is that Google argues that fair use applies to snippets even if the copyright holder objects, but Google is willing to negotiate with the copyright holder (and perhaps compensate the copyright holder?) if the copyright holder wants to enable more than mere snippets.

  3. […] As Mike noted in an earlier post, Larry Lessig’s Google Print presentation has sparked some interesting conversation about fair use and the transaction cost explanation for some of the uses that copyright law deems fair. The explanation is rather simple – when transaction costs are prohibitive, an efficient deal will not be struck and uses that should happen, don’t happen. So fair use sidesteps dealmaking altogether and leaves the public free to engage in the uses without transacting with the copyright owner. I think it is important to make clear that the transaction cost explanation only captures a portion of the fair use space and does not, and should not, fully define fair use. (Many people have made this point before, but it seems worth reiterating.) […]

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