Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Microsoft to Publishers: We Share the Same Enemy

As if to contradict my earlier posting, Microsoft has reverted to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” appeal in reaching out to book publishers by naming their common enemy: Google. There is some logic to this linkage. Conventional software publishers, like book publishers, gained success in the 20th century by using copyright control to assert exclusivity over their content, building barriers to rivals. (However, the Mickey Mouse copyright extension act is mainly about Disney movies, sometimes about music, only rarely about books, and not at all about software).

LogoOn Tuesday, Tom Rubin (associate general counsel) gave a speech to book publishers in which he accused Google of having a “cavalier approach to copyright.” Among other examples, he cited the well-known habit of YouTube subscribers posting copyrighted content without permission. Of course, Microsoft’s motives are never altruistic: in this case, it wants book publishers to bless its search approach over Google’s.

Even given the source, he has a point. Google has a business model that assumes “information wants to be free” — and, once free, Google can organize the information better than anyone else and then sell ads around its compilation. But what if copyright owners don’t want their information to be free? With books, YouTube and other areas, Google has adopted an “opt-out” approach that helps its business model but doesn’t really fit copyright law. Sooner or later, Google’s overreach is going to be stopped or slowed (unless it can buy enough Congressmembers to match Disney or the RIAA).

Thanks to Napster — in which de facto realities destroyed de jure copyright protections — the long-term viability of the copyright cartel seems comparable to that of the late 18th Century French nobility. Metaphorically speaking, many heads will eventually roll.

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