Google Is Getting Grabby

Everyone knows that the Declaration of Independence guarantees Americans “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but less well known is the fact that, in 1776, “happiness” was actually a more comprehensive way of saying “property” and the means of securing one’s individual independence.

Since the days of the Founders, private property, and respect for property rights, have been at the very core not just of capitalism and the rule of law, but of America itself. After all, if the government, corporations, or the rich and well-connected can simply swoop in and take whatever they want from you or me, then our liberties are in peril, and the free market and our way of life would collapse.

None of this is controversial, except among hardcore socialists. And yet somehow Google, one of the world’s largest and most influential companies, doesn’t quite get it.

Roughly a decade ago, Google cut and pasted thousands of lines of copyrighted code from Oracle’s Java. Lawyers have been haggling ever since about whether this theft of intellectual property will stand. Google claims that its appropriation of Oracle’s code represents “fair use,” a doctrine that usually requires that the original material be substantially altered and transformative in nature, even though in this instance, no revisions were made. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from both sides in this so-called copyright case of the century.

The stakes are high: intellectual property rights undergird some of the most vibrant U.S. industries, from music, TV, movies, books, and online publishing, to the work of scientists, engineers, and inventors. America imports enormous quantities of things, yes, but in the realm of ideas and intellectual property—knowledge and know-how, broadly defined—America is a major exporter and an unrivaled powerhouse

If Google’s exceedingly broad interpretation of the fair use doctrine stands in court, the intellectual property of innovators in all industries would be at risk. Not only could your favorite artists be shortchanged, and not only could the progress of science and technology be arrested, but major portions of the U.S. economy could grind to a halt. Thus, Google’s intellectual pilfering simply cannot be tolerated.

Troublingly, Google seems to have a history of playing fast and loose with others’ property rights, especially those of small companies and private individuals, who are easier to push around than Oracle. Google was accused of stealing trade secrets related to driverless-car technology. Some small firms also charge that Google violated their patents in the field of online advertising. When one considers these allegations in the context of Google’s reputation for violating consumers’ privacy rights, it appears that the internet giant is violating its own former motto: “Don’t be evil.” (No wonder the company dropped the phrase from its code of conduct in 2018.) After all, taking other people’s stuff (including ideas) is theft, and theft, last time we checked, is both illegal and wrong.

It’s hardly surprising, given the brazenness of Google’s purloining and the historic precedent that this Supreme Court decision could set, that people from many creative walks of life are voicing support for Oracle and condemning Google. 

The music industry, which is entirely reliant on intellectual property rights, has been especially outspoken. The Songwriters Guild of America and the Recording Industry Association of America have filed briefs with the Supreme Court in favor of Oracle’s position, and critical of Google’s ludicrous recasting of “fair use.” They realize that, while intellectual property theft is depressingly common in the music industry and in all creative fields, it cannot be allowed to run rampant, even when Big Tech stands to profit.

Google: it’s time to accept that sheer size doesn’t entitle you to trample on basic American principles like the sanctity of private property. Next time you want to use someone else’s code, or creative work, or technical designs, please do it the old fashioned way: pay for the privilege. It’s what we mere mortals do when we want to access many of your services, after all—and, if we can do it, so can you.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

Photo: Illustration by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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