Copy-editing in the Age of Google

A court decision in favor of the mass digitization of libraries is an occasion to consider how technology has transformed the copy desk.

Jacques Brinon/AP/File
The Google logo is seen on the carpet at Google France offices, in Paris, Dec. 6, 2011.

You might have missed it amid the "Obamacare" drama and the heartbreaking news of the Philippine typhoon. But those tracking developments on the intellectual property scene heard a shoe drop in mid-November – a very heavy shoe.

As Reuters reported, on Nov. 14 "Google ... won dismissal of a long-running lawsuit by authors who accused the Internet search company of digitally copying millions of books for an online library without permission."

It ain't over till it's over, and the Authors Guild, the plaintiff, promises to appeal. (While they're in court, I suggest they try to get their possessive-plural apostrophe back, too.)

The nub of the ruling is that making "snippets" of books available via a search engine, as Google does, is "fair use" of the material rather than copyright infringement.

The ruling is clearly of interest to linguists, and in their interest. As Ben Zimmer wrote on the blog "Language Log," "[US Circuit Judge Denny] Chin ruled that the Google Books project constitutes fair use because it is 'highly transformative' and 'provides significant public benefits.' "

One such benefit is to make the public, including scholars, aware of what books exist. That can only help the market for books in general.

Second, Judge Chin wrote, "Google Books greatly promotes a type of research referred to as 'data mining' or 'text mining.' " He added, "Google Books permits humanities scholars to analyze massive amounts of data – the literary record created by a collection of tens of millions of books. Researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time."

Chin's ruling came down when I was back in the Monitor newsroom, filling in on the copy desk. Although we've all been using online resources for fact-checking for years, on that particular day I was especially mindful of the level of detail that is at our fingertips now – in part through the search engine that has just been endorsed from the bench.

In my early days at the Monitor, we had yellowing reference clip files, each elaborately folded item a little bit of origami decorated with date stamps, and enormous reference volumes like the CIA World Factbook or the Encyclopedia of Associations.

We were grateful to be able to confirm in one of these references the name of, say, a cabinet minister mentioned in an international story. That generally meant getting out of one's chair to haul a heavy book off the shelf, if not actually trundling into the Monitor library. Nowadays it's a matter of copying and pasting a bit of text from the article being edited into an on-screen search box.

Fact-checking the names of people mentioned in the recent Monitor piece on the Bolsa Família program in Brazil, for instance (see the Nov. 25 issue), I found I could easily confirm online the names and spellings – with accent marks! – not only of a former government minister but a number of worker bees mentioned in the story: think-tankers, civil servants, and social workers. It was easy to shoot straight to their profiles on LinkedIn and, in one case, to her playlist on a music-sharing site.

But the Internet centipede has not yet dropped its last shoe. The other side of the Google decision is that we still struggle, in the Digital Age, for economic models of compensation for authors and journalists. People call new technologies "disruptive" for a reason.

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