The Mereology of Digital Copyright

Dan L. Burk, UC Irvine School of Law


Among the most controversial of current information technology projects on the Internet is the Google Book Search project. Google, owner and operator of a leading Internet search engine, has contracted with a variety of libraries with to scan the contents of the books held in these libraries, many of which are under current copyright. From the scanned images, Google uses search engine technology to map the relationship of words in the scanned text to the other words in the text. Access to this index is provided via an on-line interface. However, Google has not sought the permission of copyright holders, and book publishers have sued Google for copyright infringement, charging that the scanning process creates an unauthorized digital copy of many copyrighted works. While Google has asserted a defense to these claims under the doctrine of fair use, a far more difficult and more far-reaching issue for database technologies is the legal status of the index created by Google, which maps the positions of the words in the books. This metadata is not technically a "copy" of the books in questions, but the books can be recreated from such metadata. The ownership and control of such metadata is becoming an increasingly contested question in database construction, and in the resolution of the presents a difficult but critically important problem of copyright doctrine and policy.