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Google as Proxy

Since I came back from my summer hiatus, I’ve been trying to figure out a useful way to get back into the swing of the blogosphere. Frank’s post on Google finally prompted me to articulate a bunch of questions that I’ve been carrying around.

First, how do people actually use Google? Does Google know? Does anyone know? When I write “how do people actually use Google,” I’m wondering how the myriad of tools that Google supplies actually get integrated into our lives — both online and offline. I use Google as my default general purpose search tool. I use Google Scholar, Google Maps, and Google Earth. I have a gmail account, but I don’t use it much. That’s it. There are a lot of different Google measures that one could use, but if one simple spectrum is “power Google user” to “non-Google user,” where do I fall?

Second, and the reason that I ask the first, is there a plausible way to characterize IP disputes involving Google in agency terms? This question goes back to the Kinko’s/PUP v. MDS cases: If an individual has a plausible fair use defense to a claim of copyright infringement, what changes when that individual hires a firm to do the same thing 0n his/her behalf, and the firm gets sued instead? If I could go out into the world on my own and gather (headlines) (thumbnails) (cached versions of websites) in order to organize and comprehend my information universe — and that’s a big “if,” and I’ll come back to that — then why can’t I hire Google to help me? Or, why can’t Google volunteer to help me?

I suspect that how “I” actually use Google has some bearing on that question. Am I really trying to organize my information world? Is Google tempting me with tools I don’t ordinarily need or want? What is Google’s role in shaping my evolving set of preferences? (Of course, maybe I’m wrong; maybe how I use Google is irrelevant. But my intuition is the reverse, and the Betamax case sort of backs me up. I write “sort of,” because the Supreme Court cared about what people did with their machines, but the Supreme Court — I think — got it wrong.

Here’s are different versions of what I think is the same question: If fights over IP law applied to Google are really fights over individual interests in access to content, then shouldn’t we be debating them in those terms, and leaving Google out of it? If those fights are really over Google and not really about individuals, then can we stipulate that if any given individual were doing what Google is doing, for his/her own use, then no IP right would be violated? And if the answers to those questions happen to be “no,” then is the Google/IP matrix really a question of how to model a set of transactions that requires the relevant parties to internalize some acceptable level of cost? That is, are the problems here really about the distribution of IP entitlements, or (since transactions costs seem to be lower by the day) are they just about money?*

(* I can use just a little econo-jargon, safely, I think, so long as I listen to my inner Harry Callahan: A man’s got to know his limitations.)