Google Book Search Patent Offers Copyright Protection, Not Censorship

Geographic and political boundaries are challenged by the Web, where laws of one state or province or country may differ from another.

Web sites intended for an audience in one country can often be viewed by visitors from most other countries as well. Sites offering services for a global audience may try to find ways to adapt to different laws in different countries. Technology could be used to limit the content that a viewer could see based upon where he or she is located. While such technology could potentially lead to censorship, it may also be used to enforce laws regarding things such as copyright.

An example comes from a patent granted today to Google, which describes how the site might grant different access levels to books and magazines at Google Books, based upon the location of viewers.

One of the areas of law that is of considerable concern when it comes to displaying books and magazines online is copyright, and the rights of the holders of those copyrights. Google’s Book service provides access to a large number of books that are in the public domain, and are free of copyright limitations.

But, it also includes books that are still under copyright, and to make things more complicated, the length of copyright protection for books and magazines may be different from one country to another.

In a book search, Google might show a few snippets from a book to indicate where query terms that a searcher looked for might appear within that book. Presumably, those snippets are being shown under a fair use theory, where it’s considered fair use to provide some details about what a book might contain.

Some authors and publishers have granted Google a license to show more than just a few snippets from a book or magazine, and Google might display a limited number of pages to searchers as a preview. If a book is out of copyright, or an author or publisher has granted permission, a book may be fully viewable. If the book is within the public domain, Google may enable viewers to download the book, and save and print it.

There are also some books that Google may only display information about, without any snippets or previews.

The Google Books Library Project isn’t free of controversy and a proposed book settlement with authors has come under a great deal of scrutiny. Google has responded to some of the criticism over Google Books with a Legal Analysis page.

Regardless of the opinions surrounding the project, one of the challenges faced by it is that possible viewers in different locations may have different rights to view documents from Google Books, or different licenses granted by authors or publishers. The Google patent I mentioned above attempts to address that challenge by describing how Google might provide different levels of access to different potential viewers based upon such things as:

  1. The location of the user (e.g., users in different countries/legal jurisdictions may be subject to different copyright requirements),
  2. The permissions that the content provider has for the document being requested,
  3. The type of content, and
  4. The user’s security status or state (e.g., whether the user is a registered user of a particular web site or a member of a particular group).

The patent that was granted today to Google is:

Variable user interface based on document access privileges
Invented by Joseph O’Sullivan, Siraj Khaliq, Adam Smith, Alexander MacGillivray, Joe Sriver
Assigned to Google Inc.
US Patent 7,664,751
Granted February 16, 2010
Filed September 30, 2004

Abstract

Users may be presented with different viewing interfaces for a document based on a combination of factors relating to display rights possessed for the document and user specific information. In one implementation, the user’s location is used to determine portions of the document that can be displayed to the user.

More particularly, access privileges to a document for a user are determined based on geographical location information of the user and based on access rights possessed for the document. Portions of the document may then be formatted for display to the user based on the determined access privileges.

The patent provides some technical details on how books and magazines are scanned in preparation for viewing online, as well as meta data that might be created for those documents.

Meta data could include things such as:

  • Publisher information,
  • The ISBN of document, if it has one,
  • Author biographical infomation,
  • Summary descriptive information,
  • Links to additional information about document, and;
  • Access rights associated with a document.

Those access rights may vary by geographical location, such as by country or jurisdiction. For example, viewers of a book in the United States may be given partial access to a book, while views in Canada may be give full access to the same book. The author of the book may have granted full rights to view the book to Canadian viewers, and none to people browsing from the United States. Partial access in the US might be only snippets from the book, as a “fair use” display of the book’s content.

Some additional meta data about display rights from the publisher or author could include additional limitations, such as:

  • Whether images or photos should be blocked in documents,
  • Whether or not advertisements should be shown,
  • Which domains advertisements should not be shown from,
  • A reference to a logo or link that should be displayed with the document,
  • Information about where a book could be purchased, possibly including a link,
  • A links to promotional information about a book.

Conclusion

It’s possible that the process described in this patent might be construed to have some applications beyond upholding copyright laws in different jurisdictions, and permissions or licenses to view copyrighted material granted by authors or publishers, and there may be a temptation by some to describe the process involved as a way that a search engine like Google might grant different access rights to viewers in different jurisdictions to censor some search results.

The claims and description within the patent do focus upon copyright laws, and a technological solution to different copyright laws in different jurisdictions, and permissions granted by authors and publishers. Taking a step towards describing the process in the patent as a potential mechanism for censorship would probably be making more of the patent than what it really is.

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9 thoughts on “Google Book Search Patent Offers Copyright Protection, Not Censorship”

  1. Hi LegalTuber,

    Not quite sure that my post is about the legality of censorship by private individuals, but I appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

    What is described in the patent is a mechanism that could be used to protect copyright interests, possibly allow fair use access of published works, and provide availability of public domain works. When I started writing this post, I noticed a couple of other posts about this patent that claimed that Google had come up with a way to block content to viewers based upon location, surmising that Google has come up with a way to censor search results.

    There’s a possibility that this kind of censoring is going on, in some parts of the world, and the way that it’s done may be similar in many ways to what Google describes here. Would love to hear your opinions on that topic if you care to share them. Thanks.

  2. If viewing of the books would be by location. Is there an assurance that their is no discrimination. Like, for example, if it’s a third world country, they might just give snippets whereas, if its from a first world country, they may offer full view. I hope this doesn’t happen.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    I hope something like that doesn’t happen as well. The patent seems primarily focused upon a specific application – protecting copyright laws and permissions gratned by authors in different jurisdictions. There doesn’t seem to be any aim towards discrimination or censorship in what is presented in the patent filing.

  4. Hi Nathan,

    And some regions attempt to limit access to the Web for people who live in those places. But the purpose behind this patent filing isn’t discrimination.

  5. Seems like there’s more and more copyright issues coming up lately. It’ll be interesting how this turns out. Thanks again Bill for the info.

  6. Hi Jason,

    You’re welcome. I don’t know if there’s an increase in copyright issues as much as there may be more media coverage of them, and more legal actions being filed.

    Google’s Book Search and Library projects have helped generate a lot of that coverage in the past few years.

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