Google Still Not Evil

Google has a new toolbar out. You may already know this. If you don’t know about it here’s a brief introduction:

The new toolbar has a button on it to automatically transform some pieces of text on web-pages into links. When the user presses the button it converts plain-text ISBNs into links to Amazon, and converts plain-text addresses into links to Google’s map service. Some people who make websites don’t like this feature. They want to control the contents of their pages under all circumstances, even after the page has been served. Jeffrey Zeldman created a tool to help webmasters prevent users from using the new toolbar feature.

Here’s a sample objection from Tim Bray (ordinarily a sensible person):

[…]perhaps our friends at Creative Commons could have a look and develop a professional legal opinion as to whether their licenses, like the one I use, are infringed by AutoLink (my non-professional opinion is that Google’s damn close to the edge). If not, perhaps they could create a variant license that clearly rules it out of order. Then Google stops, or we sue their ass.

He wants to sue Google for providing a tool with which users can alter their own local copy of a web-page. While we’re at it, let’s sue scissors-makers because they let us cut the ads out of magazines; marker-makers for letting us cross out pieces of text in a book; or biro-makers for letting us write in margins. After all, it encourages us to make illegal derivatives of copyrighted works.

Only it damn well doesn’t, because copyright covers how and when you can distribute creative works, not what you can do with them once you get your hands on them. If I request a page from your server and your server gives it to me I can do whatever I want with it as long as I don’t show anyone else the result. I can print it out and fold it into a swan if I like. And anyone who wants to can make available the tools I need to do that. There is neither a legal nor moral foundation to your objection. If you want to prevent me from changing your page to fit my needs—whether it be to increase text sizes to help me read, or to add links to the page, or to replace every occurance of the word "French" with "Freedom"—then you can keep it on your own private intranet site and off of the Web.

Phil Ringnalda provides some interesting analogies to help throw this stupid hysteria into sharp relief. He also has a script to block Zeldman’s tool from breaking the toolbar.