Google 'Requests' That We Not Copy Works That Are Already In The Public Domain
from the yeah-right dept
Computer scientist Steven Bellovin notes a troubling trend: companies that republish public domain works are increasingly trying to use contract law to place restrictions on their use. For example, Google is apparently in the habit of "requesting" that people only use the out-of-copyright works they've scanned for "personal, non-commercial purposes." Even more troubling, works like this one that were produced by the US federal government—and have therefore never been subject to copyright—come with copyright-like notices stating that any use other than "individual research" requires a license. Fundamentally, this is problematic because copyright law is supposed to be a bargain between authors and the general public: we give authors a limited, temporary monopoly over their works, in exchange for those works being created. But in this case, the restrictions are being imposed by parties—Google and Congressional Research Services, Inc., respectively—who had nothing to do with the creation of the works. The latter case is particularly outrageous because taxpayers already paid for the works once, through our tax dollars.
With that said, there are a couple of reasons to think that things aren't as bad as Bellovin suggests. It's hardly unusual for companies to claim rights they don't have in creative works—that doesn't mean those claims will stand up in court. The fact that Google "requests" that users limit how works are used doesn't mean they can stop people who ignore their requests. And especially in the case of government works, there's a strong case to be made that copyright law's explicit exemption of government works from legal restrictions should trump any rights that private companies might claim to limit the dissemination of such works. Moreover, a few courts have recognized the concept of copyright misuse, the attempt to extend a copyright holder's rights beyond those that are specified in the law. So it's not at all clear that these purported contractual restrictions would actually be binding. Companies might say that you need permission to reproduce the works, but they're unlikely to try to enforce those requirements in court. Nevertheless, government officials and librarians should do a better job of policing these kinds of spurious claims. As Bellovin says, government agencies that hire firms to manage collections of public domain works should ensure that the private firms are contractually obligated not to place additional restrictions on downstream uses of those works.