Does the Internet exist to inspire and inform society and therefore limits copyright holders ability to block information? Hidden between the lines of Google’s otherwise predictable “Defend Your Net” campaign in Germany, where the legislature may allow publishers to charge for snippets of content on Google search results, is a very intriguing argument: information on the Internet is a public good.
Germany’s legislature, the Bundestag, is proposing a first-of-its kind law that would allow website content producers a “reasonable share” of the money collected by Google in the course of advertising next to search results that display snippets of content.
“The publishers no longer want to see their actual work and their performance being ‘pirated’ by Google and other service providers,” explained Igor Barabash of law firm, Pinsent Masons. “The argument is that all the work is done by the publishers and that Google et al. are making money by using this work free of charge.”
The unprecedented law specifically targeting search engines could extract an enormous chunk of Google’s ad revenue if content producers are able to sue for a portion of the profits. Google, naturally, argues that it drives extraordinary traffic to websites, and, therefore, profit.
If website owners didn’t value Google, they can simply use simple web code to exclude it from Google’s results. “From our perspective, this is very strange, because as you may know, publishers decide for themselves whether they wanted to be listed on Google services or not,” Google spokesman, Raif Bremer told Mashable. “They even can decide within the snippet tag whether the snippets are included or not. And so this is a rather strange law that is being discussed in Germany.”
Behind the rhetoric lies a more fundamental claim. The only reason that content producers don’t have a legal right to shared revenue is because copyright law has always permitted limited copies of content, known as “Fair Use.” Its the same law that allows a college professor to include clips of a book in class or for newspapers to quote portions of stories from their competitors.
Property law acknowledges that essential nuggets of every idea are necessary for the fluid exchange of ideas. Fair use’s “role is to prevent copyright from stifling the creativity it is supposed to foster, and from imposing other burdens that would inhibit rather than promote the creation and spread of knowledge and learning,” explains Stanford’s Fair Use Project website.
For a deliciously nostalgic example, take 90’s all-star rapper Vanilla Ice’s explanation for why he didn’t rip off Queen’s original rhythm for “Ice Ice Baby” (starts @ 1:15):
In order for the 90’s suburban white knight to even talk about the copyright issue, he has to sample portions of the previous work for his argument (or lack thereof).
Google’s claim against the German law logically implies that snippets of information are a necessary part of the search engine experience, aiding web surfers as they scour information for their investigatory needs. Nuggets of every idea, then, are a public good, beyond the stifling scope over overly-individualistic copyright holders who would deny the benefits of an informed society.
We doubt Google would explicitly make such a bold claim (and they didn’t respond to our email inquiry), but the idea of information-as-a-public good is the next logical step for the Information Age and will certainly need to be grappled with in 21st century law.