Peter Pociask asks me what I think about this: Authors Guild sues Google over library project. The gist of the issue here is that Google wants to scan the entire contents of the libraries of University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library and Oxford University, which means, more or less, that most significant books written in the last several hundred years would have digitized counterparts that people on the Internet could search and access. The Authors Guild is worried this will impact the sales of current members, apparently, and the rights of authors to say how their work can be copied and transmitted.
My take on it is pretty simple, which is that so long as an author can dictate the availability of his/her work outside of fair usage (presuming it is still under copyright), I think having a digitized, world-wide accessible database is pretty damned cool. I certainly don’t feel the sales of my work is threatened in any relevant way by something like this, and I don’t suspect the sales of anyone else’s work is particularly threatened either — especially if protections for copyrighted works are in place.
That said, the onus in protecting copyrights here should be on Google (or any other maintainer of a database like this) not on the author. When in doubt, Google should assume a work is under copyright and the copyright owner does not want the public to be able to read the entire text. Google should also be able to quickly verify and accomodate copyright owner requests regarding the display of their work; that’s part of the cost of a project like this. From what I know about the project on the Google end (which is admittedly not a whole lot), Google seems to be taking steps in that direction, so provisionally I’m of the opinion to let them move forward with this. If Google was all, like, "we’re going to do this and there’s nothing you can do to stop us bwa ha ha ha ha," I might be annoyed. But on practical grounds — which is to say, the impact on the sales of my books — even then I would doubt it would be a particularly negative thing. As noted before, I’m not nearly popular enough to truly worry about piracy.
Indeed, I think the large majority of current author fear regarding digitized, accessible versions of their work is based on two primary factors: Ignorance and ego. The ignorance is the lack of understanding that for the vast majority of authors, the ability to pop up in an Internet search on a subject would be a good thing: It’s free publicity and also acts as a taster for people who (very likely) have no idea who you are and what your writing is like. The ego is the assumption that a whole bunch of people are just gagging to steal one’s work at the slimmest opportunity. Well, you know, look: They really aren’t. Most authors are flatly unknown to anyone else, and being unknown means you have little value. Stealing your work would be a waste of time. Stealing JK Rowling’s work makes much more sense.
No one likes hearing that their work is of such inherently little value that people don’t even want to steal it, of course. But this isn’t about the quality of one’s work, it’s about the celebrity of one’s name. Most authors have none. Simple as that. Most authors have to as much to fear from online pirating as they have to fear from actual pirates coming to their door and making them walk a plank, arrrrr. I mean, I am walking proof of this: Two of my books are available online, one officially (Agent to the Stars) and the other is available through various archival services (Old Man’s War). But being online hasn’t stopped Agent from very nearly selling out its print run, or stopped Old Man’s War from cycling through several printings in hardback — because I’m not important enough to pirate. The day I actually have to worry about online versions of my book cutting into my sales is the day I know I’ve arrived.
Getting back to the Google suit, I think it’s reasonable to the extent it serves notice that authors and copyright holders really are the final legal arbiters of what happens to their work. Copyright is about control. But I think the vast majority of authors who would choose not to have their text significantly searchable and readable will be doing themselves a disservice: These days, most authors need all the publicity they can get.