Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

More on Google Print and the Public Good

Today BBC Online published an interesting editorial about the Google Print Library project by Bill Thompson, a digital author, editorialist, and blogger. The link is here.

Thompson comes down against "authors" and for Google and offers some interesting views on copyright, including a statement that it is a mistake to compare copyright with "traditional" concepts of ownership and property.

I don't know enough to comment on the definition of property in detail; the theory of private property and property rights is very complex and shrouded in legal history, theory, and jargon (Footnote 1). For example, it's easy when researching the definition of “property” to get into discussions of capitalism, socialism, shared property, commons (old definition, not new-definition Commons), etc.

Thompson appears to be saying that the value (public good) to be generated by Google and its Print Project are so substantial that the rights of authors SHOULD be overshadowed. He quotes Lessig as saying (here I'm paraphrasing) that some authors are just trying to take advantage of someone else's innovation when they try to prevent Google from unauthorized copying.

The first time I read Thompson's editorial, what popped into my mind was, "Is he saying 'the good of the many outweigh the rights of the few'?" (Footnote 2)

If this is the argument that is being made, can't similar arguments be used to support the sanctioning by the government of the taking of private property because that property can be made more useful to society in other ways?

To be fair, Thompson does point out that copyright was originally intended as a limited term monopoly and that this differentiates copyright from laws regulating physical property.

But I am still a bit concerned about the “common good” argument being made in this way. I am still a firm believer that science and the useful arts are promoted when authors are encouraged to create.

I also believe it is a mistake to force creators against their will to allow someone else to benefit financially from their work. That does not necessarily mean that the creators are against innovation; it may just mean that the designers of the Google system (accidentally or on purpose?) ignored certain issues when they designed their system.


  1. For those who are interested in reading about definitions of property, I recommend the book “The Right to Private Property” by Jeremy Waldron (Oxford University Press 1988).
  2. What pops into my mind during discussions like this is Dr. Zhivago returning to his family's house after a long absence to see it now occupied by dozens of workers taking advantage of the fact that private property has been, post-Revolution, abolished.

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