Google Books Patent Suggests Copyright Friendly Censorship

Yesterday, February 16, 2010, Google was granted US Patent No. 7,664,751, which is titled Variable user interface based on document access privileges. In this patent Google gives us a glimpse at the possible future of Google Books, which can censor books it serves based on the copyright laws of the location from which you access the Internet. In one implementation the method disclosed includes a user requesting a document, the request being received, information being processed and the viewable portions of the document being determined based on the governing copyright laws. The governing copyright laws are determined based on information relating to the user, such as relying on the IP address of the requester, which can disclose the geographic location of the user, at least when it is not spoofed.

The patent, which is the outgrowth of a patent application filed nearly 5 1/2 years ago, explains that one category of content that is not widely available on the Internet are traditional printed works of authorship, such as books and magazines. Google explains that before presenting this type of digital content to users, the content may first be scanned, and once scanned, optical character recognition (OCR) may be used to convert text in the scanned digital images of the pages of the content to a searchable digital form. Unfortunately, at least insofar as Google is concerned, content providers might be limited with respect to what they can display based on those pesky copyrights, which they do not own and to which they do not have the associated rights of reproducing and displaying.

Of course, much of this could change if Google is able to convince the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to approve the so-called Google Book Settlement, which would essentially hand over to Google all kinds of copyrights they don’t own and really have no legitimate claim to. The Department of Justice is urging the district court not to approve the settlement, concluding that Google’s competitors are unlike to be able to achieve the same rights independently, which would produce “a less than optimal result from a competition standpoint.”  The hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday, February 18, 2010. For more information on the hearing and Google Books Settlement see WSJ Blog re Hearing, WSJ Blog re Amazon Objects, LA Times, Ars Technica, PC World and USDOJ filing objecting to settlement.

Returning to the patent, what appears below is something of a “readers digest” version of the patent, aimed at providing the key highlights to give you a flavor of the disclosure. Of course, any understanding of the exclusive rights obtained must consider the claims, but for purposes of this article I will focus on the disclosure in an attempt to portray the invention in its full glory (or infamy depending upon your viewpoint).

When discussing Fig. 1, which graphically shows a “permission matrix” being used to filter a request and return only approved portions of a text, Google explains:

The ability to make the documents in database 105 available to the end users may be limited by the display rights possessed by the content provider (i.e., the operator of database 105 ). Copyright laws, business choices, or contractual restrictions may limit what is desired to be provided to the end users. The portions of the documents in database 105 that can be shown to a particular end user may be determined based on a number of factors, such 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).

Consistent with aspects of the invention, users may be presented with different viewing interfaces each designed to present the available portions of the document, such as the portions determined based on the above-listed factors. The intersection of these factors can be conceptualized as permission matrix 110 . The output of permission matrix 110 defines the spectrum of display rights available to the particular user. For a public domain document, for example, the display rights may be “full display,” indicating that the entire document can be shown to the users. Other document/end user combinations may correspond to a lower level of display rights, down to as low as “restricted” viewing, which may correspond to a minimum viewing permission.

When discussing Fig. 6, the patent explains:

Metadata 520 may also include a number of fields relating to access privileges associated with the document. The access rights may vary by geographical location, such as by country or jurisdiction. For example, access right 610 may apply to readers in the United States and may indicate that such readers have a first set of access rights. Access rights 615 may apply to readers in Canada and may indicate that such readers have a second set of access rights. For example, readers from the United States may be given “partial” access to the document while readers in Canada may be given “full” access to the document. This may be because the content provider has been granted full rights in the document from the publisher for Canadian readers but has not been granted rights in the United States, so the content provider may choose to only enable fair use display for readers in the United States.

When discussing Fig. 8, the patent explains that public domain works can be freely displayed, using Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn as an example:

In this case, the document is the first page of the book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain. This book is in the public domain and may, thus, be freely shown to users requesting the book. The document interface may be presented using a web browser or other viewing software at clients 210 .

When discussing Fig. 9, the patent explains

Assume that based on the user’s country, the fact that client 210 corresponding to the user accepts cookies, and the rights granted by the content source of the book, document browsing component 225 determines that the user is permitted to view up to 75 percent of any page in the document. Document browsing component may enforce this restriction in a number of ways. For example, as shown, the formatted image returned to the user may include portions, such as portion 905 , that are blurred, blocked, or otherwise not readable. Navigation controls 930 , similar to navigation controls 830 , may additionally be provided to assist the user in navigating through the document.

One of ordinary skill in the art will recognize that “partial access” for a document can be provided in numerous ways in addition to that shown in FIG. 9. For example: in a specified time period (e.g., 24 hours) the user may only be permitted to view a certain portion (e.g., 10%) of the document; only pre-designated portions of the document may be viewable; the document may be stamped or watermarked with lettering such as “copyrighted”; etc. Different “partial access” interfaces may be presented to different users based on their location, other user specific information, and based on access privileges for the requested document.

Somehow I am not convinced that only allowing users to read 75% of a copyright document is sufficient to escape from copyright liability.  Although not an issue with respect to patents, I am also deeply troubled by the Google Book Settlement.  I do believe if the settlement goes through it will essentially grant Google a monopoly by pushing competitors out of the marketplace, which would almost certainly not be a good thing.  Of course, there will be some who really do not understand patents who say that it is hypocritical to be worried about competition when patents kill competition.  Of course, that is simply not true.  Patents offer a fragile possibility at earning monopoly profits, but the carrot of extraordinarily strong exclusive rights continues to push the envelope of innovation forward.  Those who rest on a single granted patent will soon find themselves behind as others innovate and make their base technology irrelevant.  The same, however, cannot be said about copyrights, and granting any company a monopoly on the digitization of information seems extremely unwise.

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One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Matrix Health]
    Matrix Health
    September 10, 2010 04:26 pm

    Hmm…I’m kinda iffy on this only because I can see how this might be abused, or if a particular product or item is really great and if it is using this sort of cpoyright protection, you’ll receive omething where the original product is really tampered, or a story with less imp[act because of said censorship laws. Personally, I do hope this doesn’t pass.

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