Just two weeks before he retakes the reins as Google’s CEO, Larry Page has been pulled down from his high horse, hauled off to the woodshed, and given a good paddling by a federal judge. The matter and tone of Judge Denny Chin’s rejection of the proposed Google Books settlement are generally circumspect and measured – James Grimmelmann provides a lawyerly rundown – but when it comes to passing judgment on Google’s actual behavior to date, Chin is blunt and scathing:
The [settlement agreement] would grant Google control over the digital commercialization of millions of books, including orphan books and other unclaimed works. And it would do so even though Google engaged in wholesale, blatant copying, without first obtaining copyright permissions. While its competitors went through the “painstaking” and “costly” process of obtaining permissions before scanning copyrighted books, “Google by comparison took a shortcut by copying anything and everything regardless of copyright status.” As one objector put it: “Google pursued its copyright project in calculated disregard of authors’ rights. Its business plan was: ‘So, sue me.'”
Google’s scanner-in-chief is, of course, Larry Page. It was Page who, in 2002, photocopied the very first of the many millions of books that Google has run through its scanners, and since then it has been Page who has been the prime mover behind the company’s “so, sue me” scanning strategy. Even today, after years of courtroom wrangling, Page seems absolutely convinced of the righteousness of his cause, dismissing the arguments of critics as little more than negotiating tactics. “Do you really want the whole world not to have access to human knowledge as contained in books?” he recently said to the writer Steven Levy, adopting the messianic tone that characterizes the proclamations handed down from the upper reaches of the Googleplex. “You’ve just got to think about that from a societal point of view.”
Society, you see, has a single point of view on this complicated matter, and it’s the Page view.
I’m no fan of current U.S. copyright law. For years, legislators have given too much weight to private interests and too little weight to public interests in setting ever more onerous copyright restrictions. But nobody elected Larry Page to unilaterally rewrite copyright rules, and by now it should be clear that Google’s interests are not the public’s interests. Yes, it would be nice to share Google’s view of itself as a selfless, righteous defender of the public’s right to unbridled creativity, but the fact that the company just grabbed a frivolous patent on the use of logo doodles makes it clear that its governing point of view is not societal but commercial. It defends its own intellectual capital, to sometimes ludicrous extremes, even as it plays Robin Hood with the property of others.
The big question is, will Page learn anything from Judge Chin’s slap? Will he be ever so slightly chastened, a bit more willing to take seriously views that conflict with his own, or will he view the ruling as just another example of the benightedness of those who don’t share his perspective? The answer may well determine whether he succeeds as Google’s new chief.