Authors, Eat Your Vegetables!

Larry Lessig has a terrific little post up about Google and Book Search, and I like it particularly because it pushed a couple of my metaphoric buttons.  More below the jump.

First, the debate between anti-Book Search authors and publishers (who want to be asked before their books get scanned) and pro-Book Search advocates (who want to respond to requests to remove scanned books) reminds me of debates about vegetables.  As in, kids hate vegetables; therefore, kids need to be tricked into taught to appreciate bribed to see the virtues of eating vegetables.  Similarly, authors and publishers hate fair use; therefore, they need to be tricked into taught to appreciate compensated for giving up arguable responses to fair use claims. 

But this may be all wrong.  What if kids love vegetables?  My kids actually do love vegetables; they don’t particularly care for meat.  This certainly comes not from me but from their mother, who has kept a large vegetable garden since our children were babies and who fed them fresh veggies, direct from the garden, as soon as they were old enough to eat solid food.  My son and daughter don’t need to be tricked or bribed or taught.  Veggies are part of their culinary DNA.  Similarly, fair use is part of the cultural DNA of Google BS supporters.  The dispute, obviously and in other words, is all about baselines.  Who’s on first?

Second, I always enjoy reading rhetoric about respect.  Respect authors.  Respect copyrights.  This means absolutely nothing; “respect” is one of those terms that gets used to show that I should win an argument just because I say so.  “Respect” is an appeal to authority for the sake of authority.  “Respect” claims normativity.  But on its own, “respect” isn’t an argument.  It’s a conclusion that hides a hierarchy. 

I’ve come to appreciate this all the more as co-host of my suburban blog, in which parents defending the Big Sports status quo at the local high school carry on about “respect” for the authority of the coach who plays the kids caught drinking at a parent’s house but sits the kid who didn’t go to the party but complained to the coach, in colorful language, about the kids who did.  The latter didn’t respect the coach’s authority.  Respect the coach, respect the teacher, respect the parents who should discipline the kids, but who rarely do.

But the coach may be self-interested, teachers may be misinformed, and parents may be lazy or worse; the parents may be supplying the kids with alcohol (“better that I watch them get drunk at home; they could be getting drunk elsewhere, and driving”).  Set “respect” aside and focus on the interests of the children; set “respect” aside and see the Google BS debate more clearly.  Question authority. 

Authors and publishers are noble people who produce good works and who should be compensated when they do, sometimes in tiny increments, sometimes in extravagant amounts.  So, in effect, says copyright law.  Readers and consumers and second-generation authors are noble people who are rightfully entitled to access to knowledge, sometimes at little or zero cost.  So, in effect, says copyright law.  The question surrounding Google BS is whether the service represents a reasonable accommodation of both perspectives.