Quick Note About the Google Books Thing

People are pinging me about the judge throwing out the Author’s Guild class action suit against Google and my thoughts about it. The short answer is that I have a book deadline zooming up on me so I don’t have time to discuss it in depth, so I won’t right at the moment. I’ll save it for when I have brain cycles to spare.

Speaking very briefly on whether I suspect the tossing of the case will have a negative effect on me personally and my books solely: No. I really don’t.

I will suggest, however, and as I always do, that if one is determined to read my books and not pay me personally for them, that one avail one’s self of the local library. The librarians there are perfectly happy to support your habit, and I don’t mind at all.

22 thoughts on “Quick Note About the Google Books Thing

  1. When I was a dirt-poor kid with a loud, crowded, and seriously dysfunctional family home, I spent a lot of time in libraries. They can stock all of my books they want and let people read them for free, like I used to.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m a Canadian author, so I get a nice little cheque (Canadian spelling) from the government for missed royalties on any of my books that are sitting on Canadian library shelves.

  2. The judge’s decision notes that the effort involved in assembling a whole book from the snippet views Google has provided would be immense. It also points out that it would fail.

    Even if someone could come up with the magic combination of clever search terms, they still couldn’t get the whole book, since (quoting the decision, p. 8-9): “[O]nly the first responsive snippet available on any given page will be returned in response to a query; one of the snippets on each page is “black-listed,” meaning it will not be shown; and at least one out of ten entire pages in each book is black-listed.”

    So the chances of someone reading a whole book via Google are effectively, and in practice, zero. Per the decision (p. 9): “An ‘attacker’ who tries to obtain an entire book by using a physical copy of the book to string together words appearing in successive passages would be able to obtain at best a patchwork of snippets that would be missing at least one snippet from every page and 10% of all pages.”

    And if those hypothetical thieves are able to hack into Google and extract text directly? My own opinion is that thieves with that (hypothetical) level of skill won’t spend the time and effort to steal books. They’ll go for information they can sell a lot faster and for a whole lot more money.

  3. if anyone has seen other authors blog on this, please post a link. Id be curious what people are saying. I find it interesting when people authors blog about their professions.

  4. The issue is that of whole utilization for profit by persons other than the copyright holder. Whether an individual is granted access to the entire text through Google’s search engine is irrelevant. The point is Google can utilize the full text of a work and claim fair use, because they only showed a snippet to each individual user. Nonetheless, they’re utilizing whole texts, and they’re earning money from advertising for each view, and not passing any of that revenue back to the copyright holder. They may be following the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

    The idea of fair use, is to provide individuals with the ability to reference and quote from texts without having to go through the onerous burden and expense of obtaining permission from the author. But, fair use should be utilized towards the creation of something singular and separate from the text being quoted. Like if you were writing an essay and you wanted to quote a few authors on the subject you were addressing. You’re creating something of value to other people, something singular and original, your commentary is more important the quote you’re referencing.

    What Google is doing is selling advertisers access to an authors text based on keyword metadata, without obtaining permission from the author to do so. Under current copyright law, no permission is necessary, and that probably needs to be changed. That’s what the Author’s Guild Settlement sought to do, but the Justice Department objected to the settlement, which eventually spoiled the settlement. Now it’s up to Congress to fix, which is a joke.

  5. I find Google Books very useful for checking citations. However, if I couldn’t afford to buy the books I were interested in actually reading, going to the library would definitely be a lot easier.

  6. Responding to Evan…

    “But, fair use should be utilized towards the creation of something singular and separate from the text being quoted.”

    The judgment discusses and analyzes each of the four factors that determine whether a use is fair, and concludes that the resulting index is transformative, making it singular and separate from any individual text.

    “[Google] may be following the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.”

    The way I read it, the judge argues that Google also follows the spirit of the law when (on page 16 of the decision) he quotes the constitutional basis for copyright, which is to promote progress.

    “What Google is doing is selling advertisers access to an authors text based on keyword metadata…”

    Is your objection to the advertising or the access? I can understand an argument for the former, even though making money doesn’t preclude a determination of fair use.

    If so, I’m sure there’s a way to calculate how much money from an ad is owed to a given book when it shows up next to, say, 100 other texts returned by a search, and how the relevance ranking of that book might further weight that amount. Determining the exact percentages would require a lot of discussion and debate, but in the end this could be automated.

    There’s no doubt Google could do this, but wouldn’t love it…which is understandably the least of the Authors Guild’s concerns. I expect the Guild wouldn’t have an enthusiastic ally in the publishers, though, since publishers won’t love handling the accounting on the fractions of cents this probably yields for any given book in any given time period.

    If the concern is the simple fact of access to the text via metadata, then I think you’re right that the law needs to change. Not that I would support a change for this reason, because as is obvious by now, I wouldn’t…

    The trajectory of technology and attitudes towards how copyright should work (which…very slowly…affects how Congress behaves, at least in theory!) probably aren’t in favor of such a change. The trajectory of copyright law is, though, since it seems to become more profit- and less progress-oriented with every major revision.

  7. ” Nonetheless, they’re utilizing whole texts, and they’re earning money from advertising for each view”

    What advertising for each view? Google never displayed ads on the snippet-views they had. They did for a while have some ads on views for books where they had an arrangement with the rightsholder to show more of the book, but as the decision notes, they stopped doing even that in 2011.

  8. @Jim Ottaviani: thanks for actually reading the decision and summarizing it here in non-legalese.

    The only ads I’ve seen on Google Books are the links to places where you can buy the book, which would benefit writers. “Oooh, I like what I’ve read, let me just hit Amazon and get the whole thing, so much easier.”

    If someone wants to get a book free, they’re not going to write a program to laboriously assemble it out of Google Books snippets. They’re going to go to wherever it is one gets pirated ebooks or scanned PDFs or whatever and do it with one download click. I don’t know, you kids these days with your torrents and what-not. And they’ve been doing that way before Google Books existed. It’s just harder to sue a torrent than a big company with physical offices.

    Everyone agrees that copyright is completely screwed up, but it’s the law we have to operate under right now. And Google does not appear to be breaking current law.

    Get BatKid on the case, he seems pretty effective in San Francisco today.

  9. There’s nothing that authors hate more than those people who pass out free copies of their books to even worse people who are paid to write articles based on the author’s work and who steal their themes, plots, characterizations and often give away chunks of the text for free. The next copyright law should put these parasites out of business – no more damned publishers, publicists and reviewers. (Hey, maybe it will.)

  10. I can’t tell whether kaleberg is trolling or being serious here. I will say as an author, I rather appreciate my publishers, publicists and (mostly) reviewers.

  11. It’s not libraries that are weird. It’s the expectation that each person should pay for a copy of a book in order to read it once, and perhaps every time they read it that is truly odd. There’s no reason to produce the paper and the ink and print up a whole copy just for one reading.

    One day humanity will look back at the copyright era as a bizarre historical curiosity, an artifact of unsophisticated government and unsophisticated distribution systems where somehow the distribution cost of a work of art became commercially synonymous with the value of the work itself. I don’t know what system will replace it, but I do know that it is dying and that in the end it will fail because it is unsustainable.

  12. We seem to have forgotten that the “spirit” of the original copyright laws was not about maximizing the profits of authors and publishers, but were rather about maximizing the available works to readers by giving authors and publishers incentives to write and publish.

    (Which is of course why libraries have long been a part of the equation.)

    Unfortunately, we’ve veered off from this, and in many cases copyright law now prevents people from accessing works because no one can even figure out who retains the original rights. That’s diametrically opposed to the original spirit of copyright laws.

  13. @Jim Ottaviani

    I read the judgement, and I think it’s wrong. Progress, and proper compensation are not mutually exclusive in this circumstance, as the settlement terms previously negotiated between Google and the Author’s Guild proved. They had set up a trust and a mechanism (similar to what ASCAP does for music publishers) that would have fairly compensated authors for display of their work, and paid them royalties as a percentage of advertising revenue. The settlement wasn’t dismantled because the terms were too onerous for Google to comply with and keep Book Search alive (and profitable). The Justice Department stepped in because of concerns that the class wasn’t inclusive enough, and that there would anti-trust implications if Google were allowed to be the sole owner of this database of scanned works, neither of which were addressed at all in this current ruling.

    I think Google is brilliant, and Book Search is a fantastic tool, but I don’t think that means they should be able to use an author’s work (even if it’s sliced into bite sized pieces) to sell soap, without giving that author a reasonable slice of the click-through ad revenue. I also don’t think they should be able to include an author’s work in their database against the wishes of that author. Both those issues were addressed quite well in the settlement which was thrown out at the behest of the Justice Department, in an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    Judge Chin tossed out the original settlement by authors citing anti-trust implications, but approved the settlement with the AAP, and then ruled in favor of Google at the end of it, allowing Google to both keep its supposed “unfair advantage” and stiff the authors in addition. It smells fishy to me, is all I’m saying.

  14. @Evan Gregory

    Since we disagree as to whether this is a fair use I guess we’re bound to disagree on how to fix whatever problems there were with the previous settlement, or with copyright law in general!

    (FWIW, I also didn’t like the settlement, but that was as much about my seeing it as kicking the can further down the road rather than dealing with the problems head-on as it was about the details.)

    But before I bow out here, I’m curious…

    Do you think Google’s indexing of the web should be opt-in only? You haven’t opted out for your blog, but do you think you should be getting a slice of the ad revenue Google generates from a search that brings up a post on “Flaubert’s Pyramid”?

    And yeah, I know books are different from blogs and web pages. But it seems to me that the concept of fair use was embedded in U.S. law for this very reason…to embrace such differences. Unanticipated and transformative uses of copyrighted works are something we want to encourage.

    So while an author like (Authors Guild plaintiff) Jim Bouton didn’t have Google’s Book Search in mind when he wrote “Ball Four”, given what Google shows from his books — and just as importantly, what it doesn’t show — I can’t see how he’s owed money for making “Ball Four” more discoverable in today’s online world.

    Anyway, without guessing at what was going on in the Justice Department and w/Judge Chin, while you think it’s fishy, I think the decision is one of the first breaths of fresh air where fair use is concerned in a long time.

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