When Google challenges the law

On the basis of its sales figures of 29.3 billion dollars for the year 2010, Google each day converts a few more internet users to the altar of services it is developing on the Internet. In his recent essay (1), Alain Strowel, a lecturer at the University of Liège and a lawyer at the Brussels Bar, a specialist in intellectual rights and the new information technologies, throws juridical light on the major challenges to the law set by the American giant.

COVER StrowelMore audacious, more enterprising, but less attentive to the rule of law than other internet operators, Google has seen the number of legal proceedings brought against it increase over recent years – with events heating up in particular in 2010. The cult of the engineer and innovation which reigns within the buildings of the Mountain View company in California no doubt has something to do with this: Google’s young engineers enthusiastically launch new services, measure their attractiveness, collect data, etc. and only then wonder about respecting legal regulations, even if it means retracting as needs be when reactions become too virulent. Google is thus permanently testing the limits of the law but is also contributing to sketching out the online rules of the game and more generally the future of the internet. Amongst Google’s adversaries are ranged publishers, the traditional media, trademark owners, advertisers, defenders of private life who each in their turn denounce infringements of copyright, trademark rights, competition law and the right to a private life. So many legal disputes which bear witness to a conflict between on the one hand an ostensibly libertarian – but also highly commercial – approach to the web and on the other a more traditional system. In his essay Alain Strowel dissects in seven chapters the major challenges thrown down to the law by Google.

Author’s rights in question

‘Everything accessible to everyone free of charge.’ If it almost blindly seduces the majority of internet users, the leitmotif which the new economy of content proposed by Google is shot through with is nevertheless disturbing book publishers, the press and the audiovisual world. ‘Google’s new practices,’ points out Alain Strowel, ‘and the new modes of distribution for protected content have the merit of asking the right questions concerning copyright laws and interrogating their applications to the new information technologies in particular.’ The internet tools Google Books, Google News, YouTube and Google Image plunge us into the challenge Google poses to copyright laws.

1. Google Books. As Alain Strowel points out, the writer Jorge Luis Borges already in 1941 evoked in his The Library of Babel the dream of a universal library which would bring together the ensemble of knowledge. Seventy years later Google Books, presented as ‘the future global digital reference library’ caresses this dream with its fingertips.  ‘Google is on the way to realising this superb project thanks to partnerships established with over forty libraries and agreements signed with over 35,000 publishers.’  The two parts of Google Books, the Library Project (libraries) and the Partner Program (publishers) have nevertheless given rise to a series of legal disputes. ‘The partner libraries, European as much as American, authorise Google to borrow their books to digitalise them in order to subsequently make them available online. Nonetheless, the American libraries have accepted the digitalisation not only of books which have fallen into the public domain but also of books still protected by author’s copyright – which it is true do not appear in their entirety but all the same in the form of bibliographical information (title, name of author, cover, etc.) or in the appearance of snippets, in other words extracts presented as strips of tattered paper. European books available in American libraries thus appear on Google Books without the consent of their authors.’

(1) Alain Strowel, Quand Google défie le droit. Plaidoyer pour un internet transparent et de qualité.  Published by De boeck & Larcier, 2011.

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