Action on Authors' Rights

The UK Government and the Google Book Settlement

Most professional authors with active careers who have looked into the detail of the Google Book Settlement have reacted with alarm and anxiety. Debate among them has focused chiefly on the best way to prevent Google Inc. from displaying or selling their books without authorization: whether it is better for authors to opt out and rely on copyright law, or register their books and invoke the provisions in the Settlement Agreement for having them removed.

The main UK authors’ organizations have hailed the Settlement as a positive development and advised opting in.

The Society of Authors has been markedly vague, much of the time, about the contents of the Settlement Agreement. More than once when it has ventured into specifics it has shown itself to be troublingly confused.

As for the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS): it has been facing an uncertain future with the decline of the photocopier. It has welcomed the Google Book Settlement in terms that suggest that it sees a new licensing opportunity, administering UK authors’ payments from the planned Book Rights Registry.

Meanwhile, UK authors have been asking: where is the government in all this? Why isn’t it taking action to protect our rights?

The governments of France and Germany sent briefs to the court urging the rejection of the settlement. The government of India made diplomatic representations to the government of the United States.

In recent weeks, the sorry truth has been emerging: in Britain the New Labour government supports the Google Book Settlement, and has done from the start.

In an article in the Times in November 2008 David Lammy, Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, hailed the Google Book Settlement as

[a deal that has] the potential to streamline the administration of copyright in the digital age … an evolution in the way copyright licensing for printed works is administered and a revolution in the freedom of access to harder-to-find works.

This op-ed by Mr Lammy was drawn to my attention by officials at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) at a meeting on Monday 25 January. The meeting was set up by two intellectual property lawyers from London solicitors Olswang, Mark Devereux and Clive Gringras. They took along with them my agent Meg Davis and me: not as clients but in order that we might contribute to the discussion on the basis of our knowledge of and deep concern about the Google Book Settlement and our experience of how the book industry works.

The following points are among those that emerged at the meeting:

  • From the point of view of IPO and the government, the GBS model of digital publishing is one that is ‘in principle worth looking at’.
  • ‘Improving access to digital content’ is perceived as immensely important, and there is held to be a ‘logjam’ in delivering this, which the mechanism of the GBS dislodges. (I challenged the existence of such a logjam in the meeting.)
  • There is a perception that licensing works for use is currently ‘too complicated’.
  • On the whole idea of the GBS and the way it is set up to operate: when they looked into it they found ‘nothing so offensive about it that we would unhesitatingly condemn it’.

We were told that our group was far more hostile towards and critical of the GBS than anyone else they had talked to.

The Publishers’ Association (PA) and the ALCS have been lobbying for the GBS: no big surprises there. I didn’t get it clear whether the Society of Authors had made direct representations, but IPO were aware that the SoA broadly supports the GBS. IPO has not taken steps to consult widely among authors, but has been taking a kind of ‘straw poll’ of various authors who have passed its portals in recent months: we were told that all of them said that the GBS sounded like a good idea. (I suspect none of them had read the agreement.)

The big issue for IPO seemed to be the support for the settlement that had been expressed from the publishers’ side. This accords with a statement from Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (DBIS), reported by The Bookseller on 4 February. Confirming ‘that the government would not be lodging an objection to the settlement’, the spokesperson was reported as saying that ‘it was “right” that the Publishers Association “leads in this process”‘.

The government is all too plainly in need of assistance to get its collective head round the fact that copyrights belong to authors, not publishers; for the most part publishers only license them.

It also ought to be asking the PA some tough questions about the secret side-deal between Google and the big publishing corporations; but more on that in a later post.

To return to David Lammy’s op-ed: it makes alarming reading to any author who is at all well-informed about the GBS. It indicates plainly that the current Minister for Intellectual Property would like to jam a Google Book Settlement-style compulsory licensing system down our throats over here.

Provisions included in the Digital Economy Bill (Clause 42) would pave the way for this. They provide for the government to bring in regulations under a statutory instrument that would authorize ‘a licensing body’ – such as the ALCS – ‘to grant copyright licences … in respect of works in which copyright is not owned by the body or a person on whose behalf the body acts’. In other words, this would be a default opt-in arrangement, just like the Google Book Settlement. It would be possible to opt out only ‘in respect of rights excluded by notice given by the copyright owner in accordance with the regulations’ (whatever those may be). The reference to ‘rights’ implies that, just as with the Google Book Settlement, an author who wished to stay in control of his or her copyrights would have to give details of every single publication he or she had ever licensed. (The same would apply, if course, to literary estates.)

These provisions would permit the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (or a successor) to authorize the ALCS (or a similar company) to mass-license all British publications to Google (or another entity), except in those cases where the authors or other copyright-owners had gone to some trouble to prevent this.

And this is indeed the intended scheme, as a Tory spokesman has just confirmed in an email to another author: ‘The Bill would provide a legal framework for a potential book settlement in the UK, backed up by codes of practice.’ The Tories support the idea.

The GBS is in some trouble in the States. Following serious criticisms from the US Department of Justice, there are big questions over whether the court will approve it, and if it does, in what form.

But if authors in Britain don’t make their voices heard now, they may find that a similar scheme (or a worse one) has been imposed over here by government decree.

The ALCS isn’t going to oppose this. The Writers Guild of Great Britain has been actively calling for it. The Society of Authors has nothing to say about it on the public pages of its website. Given the Society’s support for the GBS, it can no longer be assumed that it will speak up for authors’ rights; which given its long and honourable history is very sad.

Action on Authors’ Rights is an ad hoc campaigning group set up by UK authors and agents who are deeply concerned about the Google Book Settlement, the Digital Economy Bill, and other current threats to the fundamental principles of copyright.

It aims to bring home to the UK government and opposition the well-founded concerns of UK authors about the Google Book Settlement and the Digital Economy Bill, and to have an input into the debate on digitization and copyright in Europe.

If you are a UK author or an author resident in the UK, and you agree with our manifesto – why not join our mailing list?

Whether you opted out of the GBS, or reluctantly stayed in, it would be great to have your input and involvement.

We also welcome UK literary agents.

In addition to the mailing list, there is also a Facebook group: email the organizer if you want to join.

February 11, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 8 Comments