It’s always slightly disturbing, when scrolling through an old book in Google Books, to suddenly come across a page obscured by the fingers of the technician who manned the Google scanner. You find yourself, for a moment, both repelled and beguiled, as if you were witnessing a secret, ghostly act of violation.
The writer Caleb Crain, in doing research for a review of Adrian Johns’ new book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, came upon a particularly eerie image:
And what work, you might ask, is the scanner’s hand so boldly groping? It’s an essay by Immanuel Kant, the title of which is “Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books.”
Could there be a fitter representation of copyright’s contemporary plight than the fingers of a Google technician obscuring Kant’s defence of writer’s rights? An author’s consent, Kant cautions in a footnote, “can by no means be presumed because he has already given it exclusively to another”, yet Google is struggling to effect exactly this sort of transfer of consent today, as it attempts to win approval for a legal settlement in the United States that will allow it to republish works whose copyright owners have not come forward. I couldn’t have read Kant’s essay so easily without the Google technician’s labour – in fact, without Google, I might not have got around to reading it at all – but her fingers were nonetheless in the way. The internet’s attitude toward Kant’s words is ambiguous, combining respect, appropriation, liberation and accidental vandalism.