Pardonnez-moi? Yes, you read it right the first time. A European court last month agreed with a group of regional publishers in Belgium that accused Google of ripping off their content. The court ordered Google to remove text summaries of the newspapers' articles, along with Web links to the publishers' sites.
Not very much was made of the decision on this side of the pond. Investors shrugged off the news and continued to send Google's stock ever higher. Google subsequently cried foul and said it would challenge the ruling. No surprise there.
There's a fine line between fair use and infringement, and U.S. courts have chosen not to erect impediments against creating something like Google News.
Interesting idea--but we're not even close to having that conversation in this country. The European court struck at the heart of the Web 2.0 assumption that it's perfectly all right to profit from another company's content without permission and without payment. Google's acquisition of YouTube makes this more than an academic question. The deal puts an urgent onus on Google management to block the uploading of copyrighted material on the video-sharing service. Otherwise, the lawsuits are going to start flying.
Like Napster, YouTube may be the extreme case. Still, both companies, which relied on the use of "free" content, were nourished by the widely held conviction that all Net content should be free. I want to be charitable, but it's hard to argue against the proposition that Napster and YouTube flourished because of theft.
You can't get away with that idea in other walks of life. Believe me, I would love to waltz into the local bookstore, browse through the aisles, and walk out with a bag full of novels without making a pit stop at the cashier. Same goes for the record store, or the neighborhood video joint. Life doesn't work that way. Our social arrangements don't allow some people to work for others without the remotest chance of receiving compensation. You may remember that this nation fought a civil war to eradicate that despicable practice.
However, when it comes to the Internet, woe to the stick-in-the mud (like me) who fails to swim with the crowd that believes all Internet content must be there for the taking. In other words, it's a big candy store in the clouds, open to one and all.
I remember the hue and cry that went up after The New York Times decided to charge for some its articles. Judging from the reaction it triggered, you would have thought the Grey Lady had come out in support of making Albanian our national tongue. The mob of critics decided to ignore the troubling detail that it costs money to turn out a newspaper. Such is the challenge Internet publishers increasingly confront.
In a brilliant piece he wrote last year, Nick Carr described the "amorality of Web 2.0". Among other things, he discussed how the Internet was changing the economics of creative work.
And so it is.
Maybe Google's spat with the Europeans can serve as a useful starting point for clarifying the discussion of copyright protection in the new cyberage. Lots of issues need to get sorted out. But the longer we keep putting off this discussion, the more we delude ourselves into believing there should be free lunches for some but not others.
That's not amoral. It's immoral.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
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