Talking to the publisher who stole Google's laptops

A British book exec argues that scanning books to build a search engine is the same thing as stealing computers.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published June 11, 2007 3:45PM (EDT)

I phoned Richard Charkin, the chief executive of the U.K. publishing house Macmillan, on Friday morning, just after both Lawrence Lessig and Boing Boing published items calling him an idiot. They were objecting to something Charkin did a couple of weeks ago while he was walking the floor of Book Expo America, the huge publishing shindig in New York. He and a friend sidled up to Google's booth and stole two of the company's laptops. They kept the machines for a brief time within eyeshot of the Google staffers -- and when the Googlers noticed where the computers had gone and asked Charkin to return them, he did.

Charkin did this as a kind of direct-action protest against Google's effort to scan and index millions of library books, a project that has angered the American publishing industry. Because Google does not plan to ask publishers for permission before it scans their books -- just as it does not ask webmasters for permission to scan the Web -- the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers say the company is stealing their work, and they've sued to stop the plan. "I thought, well, it's a very good parable," Charkin told me. Google plans to keep publishers' books in its index until the publishers specifically opt out. "Following their logic," Charkin said, "as they have not said, 'do not steal the laptop,' one could take it until they say 'please give it back.' We sat literally there with them in full view. Eventually the Google people came over and said, 'Are those ours?' We said, 'Yeah, have them back -- we were showing you what the difference between opting in and opting out is.' They looked completely bewildered, of course.'" Afterward, Charkin boasted about his stunt on his blog.

The thing was so silly in so many ways. What Charkin did, the copy-fighting Stanford law professor Lessig says, "betrays an astonishing level of ignorance." Google, for one, will not make the full text of copyrighted books available to searchers online -- search for "mistake" in the "The Macmillan Handbook of English," still under copyright, and you'll only see a small snippet surrounding the word as it appears in the book, like this. Google, furthermore, can't really get the permission Charkin says it needs before it scans books, because there is no central office keeping track of who owns the rights to published books; the vast majority of titles in libraries are still under copyright but out of print, effectively orphaned by their owners. Making them searchable looks far more like helpful to these titles than harmful.

But of course the main thing is this: When Google scans a book it does not reduce anyone else's access of the title -- people can still get it from the library. But when Charkin took the laptop, Google couldn't use it anymore. Intellectual property and physical property are in this way fundamentally different ideas, and American law, as Lessig has argued, has long treated them differently. The Constitution envisions copyright lasting for "limited times," while your rights to physical property are permanent. Yet those who hold large stocks of intellectual property constantly blur that difference; they've lobbied again and again to raise copyright terms, and they continually put forth the idea that "copying" is the same thing as "stealing." Talking to Charkin, the view shifts into sharp focus.

Charkin says that scanning books is the same thing as stealing computers because in both cases, someone is being deprived of a "right" that is worth money. "Copyright is the same -- it is a right, it is an asset which you can buy and sell," he says. "By saying that your laptop is in some way more valuable than intellectual property, aren't you making some pretty sweeping assumptions about the value of human knowledge?" Lessig and other copy fighters argue that knowledge and human creativity flourish under a less restrictive copyright regime -- that intellectual property deserves less protection than physical property because art and science depend crucially upon access to past work. But Charkin, who publishes the science journal Nature, maintains that to treat books differently from computers is in some way to short-change "knowledge." He argues knowledge can be disseminated widely in accordance with his view of authors' rights -- for instance, when universities buy licenses to allow their students access to academic journals. And until Google can figure out a way to satisfy authors' rights, it should only scan books whose copyrights have expired, he argues.

Charkin's position, alas, is not a lonely one. Though he's been widely pilloried this week, his blog overflows with supportive comments, and many in the recording industry, the movie industry and the book industry feel the same way. The situation clarifies the stark and clashing philosophical differences between those who argue for new rationality on copyright, on those who believe the ideas in a book are no different from the plastic and silicon of a laptop. "The whole thing's been blown out of proportion, but in a way I sort of feel it's good the debate is happening," Charkin says. "I've never been called a 'luddite' before, and I was sort of proud of that."

Correction: I originally labeled Charkin the founder of Nature; he is the chief executive of Macmillan, which founded Nature. Charkin also serves as the head of the Nature Publishing Group's executive committee.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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