Google Books

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.  

19 thoughts on “Google Books

  1. As far as I can tell, and from what Google has publically stated, there is no way to read the full text of ANY book that is scanned in. In fact, there is no way to even read a whole page. The search is returning something like a relavent sentence or paragraph, which could then drive people to acquire the actual piece of literature that the information comes from.

  2. To play devil’s advocate for a moment – suppose everyone started doing their research by googling whatever subject they were writing about and citing the hits that it returns (from books they never actually touched). That would mean they wouldn’t need to actually buy those books (or borrow them from the library, which would in turn have less reason to buy them as well).

    Having said that, I still think it would be a great benefit to everyone to have this information on the Internet. But I can understand why some authors would be hesitant…

  3. I think Google’s approach is controlled by the fact that you cannot identify the owner for the majority of books in the libraries. Any less than current book becomes amazingly problematic.

    I’ve seen this in action. I know people who have found a book, printed after the public domain cut off date, that they would like to reprint. The author is dead. The publisher doesn’t exist anymore. Does the author have heirs? How do you find them? Did the copyright get sold to someone? Who knows?

    Eventually, people usually just give up and the book is never reprinted. Google’s approach is practice. Assume that the book doesn’t have an owner unless the person or their rep steps forward. The majority of books will never have that happen…

  4. Speaking for myself, I find that obscurity brings splendid peace of mind. No one will try to steal my stuff and, in all honesty, I would be puzzled if anyone did. It’s not like you’d make any money off of it.

  5. Well, one issue of concern here might be for those large reference books that sell almost exclusively to libraries: Who’s Who or the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and so on.

    If you can search those books more effectively online (and of course you can), then smaller libraries wouldn’t have to spend their miniscule budgets on them, they’d just need to have a workstation available. I would assume that such reference works are only financially viable if they know that 10K public libraries will order their copy at $450 a shot (or so).

    Just a theory, but then what else is a crackpot to do but come up with theories…

  6. Google’s approach is practice. Assume that the book doesn’t have an owner unless the person or their rep steps forward. The majority of books will never have that happen…

    But as Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, told the N.Y. Times, that “practice” turns longstanding precedents in copyright law upside down, requiring owners to pre-emptively protect rights rather than requiring a user to gain approval for use of a copyrighted work.

    If I use your car Saturday night without your permission, it’s no defense for me to say that you had to tell me I couldn’t ahead of time, especially if you don’t know that I had my eye on your wheels.

  7. I don’t particularly disagree with anything that you said, but…

    I think some of the overreaction from authors may be the result of the general pattern of brazen copyright infringement that has taken place over the internet since the late 1990s. The piracy has, to some extent, invited overreaction.

    There is definitely a faction out there who wants to more or less remove all copyright protections. If you are familiar with Richard Stallman and the Free Software movement, you will know what I mean. (Stallman–the originator of the GNU–doesn’t think that anyone should have control over any creative content.)

    The Creative Commons, while it stops short of outright copyright infringement, clearly wants to *discourage* people from retaining rights to creative content. Their idea seems to be that all music, literature, art, etc., should be a big communal soup or sorts.

    Overall, I agree that the threat to authors is minimal at the moment. However, musicians, software creators, and movie studios have been severely damaged by the internet-based piracy of recent years.

  8. Thanks for answering my question!

    I’m curious if Google will eventually take the next step and mold Books to work like the video service, with micropayments for content on a price decided on by the copyright holder. It seems like they could become a formidable middle man in a short time, given their reach. Time will tell.

  9. Patrick:

    “The Creative Commons, while it stops short of outright copyright infringement, clearly wants to *discourage* people from retaining rights to creative content. Their idea seems to be that all music, literature, art, etc., should be a big communal soup or sorts.”

    I don’t know if I’d go that far, as relates to CC. I think with CC it’s more accurate to say that there is a subset of writers/artists who want audience collaboration, and CC creates a structure to let that happen.

    Personally, I find CC superfluous and I prefer people explicitly get permission from me to do anything from my work, so it’s doubtful you’d ever see me release anything via CC.

  10. Well, one issue of concern here might be for those large reference books that sell almost exclusively to libraries: Who’s Who or the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and so on.

    If you can search those books more effectively online (and of course you can), then smaller libraries wouldn’t have to spend their miniscule budgets on them, they’d just need to have a workstation available.

    As a university librarian, I can say that is a distinct possibility. During our last condition of budget crunches (roughly 2001-2004), our library canceled every single journal that we could get fulltext through one of our online databases. So I’d have to say that’s not a crackpot concern for publishers.

    Which reminds me: I wonder how publishers feel about Google’s plan?

  11. Patrick, I would take issue with your statement that “However, musicians, software creators, and movie studios have been severely damaged by the internet-based piracy of recent years.”

    Ive seen several studies that show just the opposite, or at least that there is no correlation. The claims of vast losses from piracy strike me as more of a desperate bid to keep control of the means of distribution than valid accusations. Such is the plight of the outmoded middle man.

  12. Jesse C: that Google only displays very limited information doesn’t address the copyright violation – the copying occurs when Google builds its searchable database, not when it displays results. It might affect assessed damages.

    (Also, there is copyright in databases. Do you see Google releasing its databases? No – they want to make money from this. Therefore the authors get to make money too. Google’s just another publisher.)

    It may be a stupid strategy for authors not to release electronic rights, but owning something means being able to do stupid things with it: if you have a duty of care, then you’re a trustee or employee, not an owner.

  13. PeterP writes:

    “The claims of vast losses from piracy strike me as more of a desperate bid to keep control of the means of distribution than valid accusations. Such is the plight of the outmoded middle man.”

    My point was not to say that all internet distribution was bad. Authorized internet distribution (such as i-Tunes) which a is authorized by the content providers is one thing.

    A seventeen-year-old taking songs off a CD and making them available to the whole world over a P2P network is another. Likewise what goes on in China–where pirated copies of movies, music, and software are sold by the millions.

    The key question is this: is the distribution scheme authorized by the party who owns the copyright? If yes, then its OK. If no, then it’s stealing.

  14. Google’s just another publisher

    Exactly. Much as I love Google–and I have dear friends who work there–it really has the mentality that “don’t be evil” means everybody should just trust them to do the right thing.

  15. “The Creative Commons, while it stops short of outright copyright infringement, clearly wants to *discourage* people from retaining rights to creative content. Their idea seems to be that all music, literature, art, etc., should be a big communal soup or sorts”

    The creative commons is trying to etablish a copyright system where the author can instill certain permissions automatically in the copyright statement. ie: do what you want with it as long as it’s non-commercial and you provide a link back to the author. It is not trying to get rid of copyright.

    see http://creativecommons.org/

    Now the people behind the creative commons Prof. Lawrence Lessig (http://www.lessig.org) among others belive that rights of the author, copyright, need to be balanced with the needs of the public. The most famous example is Disney and their blantat use of the public domain; and it’s continual efforts to get congress to keep extending the copyright span to protect Micky Mouse.

    Richard Stallman is almost another issue entirely. He is primarly concerend with software patents.

    Jim

  16. I feel a need to comment on the Creative Commons thing. My podcast releases on a CC attribution-noncommercial-noderivatives license. This is not some bold philosophical statement on my part; it’s a practical legal shorthand. I’m giving away my content and relying on donations (which is working, BTW) so my goal is to get my audio files disseminated as widely and as rapidly as possible. I want people to copy my content.

    What I don’t want, however, is for people to plagiarize or substantially alter the content. Not only would this annoy me, it’d violate the rights of the authors whose stories I’m narrating. I only buy nonexclusive audio rights from them; I don’t have the right to create derivative works other than a straight narration, so I can’t give anyone else those rights either. And I also don’t want others making money off the content. Not because it’s unfair to me, but because it’s unfair to the authors I’ve contracted with.

    Now I could stick a tag on every file and an explanation in every podcast explaining in detail everything I’ve said above; or I could just link to the proper Creative Commons license, which makes it a whole lot clearer and has boilerplate thinking it out more deeply than I could. I use this CC license because it suits my needs perfectly and saves me time communicating to my audience what they’re allowed and not allowed to do with my sound files.

    It’s got nothing to do with the public good or theories of art or what “information wants.” It’s got everything to do with what’s convenient for my content.

    And I do my best to explain that every chance I get, because I get sick of every discussion about CC going up into the clouds and into socioteleological theory or whatever it is, and divorcing itself completely from any notion that it could be practical for someone.

  17. Just saw this. One amusing thing — sometimes, digital indexing can be a big help for writers. Last week, Amazon’s Search Inside feature turned up a copy of an essay of mine in a book I had no idea had run it. They certainly didn’t legally obtain the copyright to use it. Now I have the option of pursuing that if I want to; without Amazon’s search, I probably never would have known about the infringement. With reasonable protections in place to preview viewing of long works in their entirety, I’d cheerfully and gratefully sign on the dotted line to let Google, Amazon, etc index all my stuff.

  18. Suing Google

    I know I’m a little late to this party, but I did want to say something about the Author’s Guild’s suit against Google. If you haven’t heard about this yet, the basic premise of the lawsuit is that Google is undergoing a vast p…

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