Did Google “steal” the moon?

Copyright maximalists use silly terminology like “copyright protects the content of intellectual property owners against theft by pirates“. Works are works, not content, and cannot be stolen, because they can effortly and almost freely be duplicated. They are not owned by copyright owners, but by the public, which loans the works to the publishers (most of the time). A work is not protected by copyright, since copyright generally makes sure that only a limited amount of dissemination can be applied to a work, whereas full protection also requires the unhindered ability to rip, mix, and burn a work.

Anyway, this issue is well-understood, and the only really disconcerting thing about it is that regular folks, and even copyfighters, unthinkingly use the same words when talking about copyright that the sort of scum that tries to criminalize regular folks use.

I said that works cannot be stolen, but that is not quite true. Theft means that I take something away so that you can no longer use it. Copyright law would be theft if it weren’t introduced by the state, because copyright law makes it so that you can no longer freely use works. If anything copyright related comes close to being theft, it is making false claims about copyright status. Visible copyright claims have become No Tresspassing signs, barring people from access even where they have a right to access.

Google made a small celebratory parody on their excellent Google Maps service; Google Moon celebrates the first manned moon-landing by providing a photo map of the Sea of Tranquility.

[Screenshot of a fragment of the Google Moon interface]

The interesting bit is the copyright notice that Google super-imposes on the image: “Copyright 2005 Google – Imagery copyright 2005 NASA”. NASA is a part of the USA government, and according to the copyright laws of that same government, governmentally produced works are in the public domain. In other words, nothing is “copyright NASA”–the photos Google uses are owned by the entire planet; not just by NASA and not just by Google.

Also interesting is how Google super-imposes the copyright notice over the image text, implying that Google is also a copyright holder of these photos. The thing Google probably claims copyright over are the page lay-out, the software, possibly the interface (if that can be copyrighted). And probably Google was not being evil (although they have not been trying very hard to not be evil lately), but rather it was listening to its lawyers who said “better safe than sorry”.

When I started this blog, I had a couple of goals with it. One of them was to let me explore the intricacies of copyright by writing about them. I feel that I have not learned much yet, but one thing I am pretty certain about; misrepresenting copyright status is almost always a bad thing. When people want to build upon a work, but are turned off by the possibility of infringement that is suggested by a falsely placed copyright notice, or by a badly written license, or by the lack of mention of an author to contact, it means creativity is blocked by copyright.

I stumble upon this from time to time when trying to find books for Project Gutenberg. Since I am in the Netherlands, I need to make sure that a book is in the public domain before I send it to PG. In my case that means finding out the date the author died, but with obscure authors that is rarely straightforward.

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