Action on Authors' Rights

Authors and the Google Book Settlement

Statement at the Google Books Policy Panel Breakfast held by the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property (SABIP), 23rd February 2010

The Bookseller reported recently that the government sees it as “right” that the Publishers Association “leads” the UK’s response to the Google Settlement. I’ve been asked to point out that the rights that the settlement would license to Google are rights to works created by authors; rights that in a huge number of cases belong to authors; publishers may hold licenses to them, but authors own the copyrights. Many of the rights to out-of-print books have reverted to their authors. Authors are very big stakeholders in this business; and many of us are feeling that we are not being taken sufficiently into account. It is authors who by their original creative work produce the value on which the entire publishing industry depends.

In this country professional book authors who have looked into the Google Settlement hate it. I am talking about authors who license their books to trade publishers in return for an advance on royalties, and who have built their careers wholly or partly round writing; authors who sell books in large numbers, and authors who are hoping that their latest book will break out into the big time. Witness the many UK names on the opt-out list, an amazing range of talent that spans the genres, the generations and the political spectrum. The debate among authors in the run up to the opt-out deadline was focused on the best way to escape from the thing: opt out, or opt in and remove your books. I know several who have taken the latter course; anecdotally, I know there are others, probably very many. Some are relying on promises from their publishers to pull their books from Google’s database. I can only find one professional UK book author who has praised the settlement: Maureen Duffy, Honorary President of ALCS and a representative plaintiff.

The settlement has been a PR disaster for Google. Authors worldwide write blogs that are read by fans, friends, family, and many wannabe authors. In recent months, comments on forums and blogs have become increasingly hostile to Google. This includes comments on news sites, and even, remarkably, in geek strongholds like the famous Slashdot site.

Google claims that out-of-print books are of no economic value, and that the settlement is the only way that authors can benefit from them. Professional authors know this is nonsense. Winning an award; getting a TV or movie deal; bringing out a new book in a series; writing in a genre that comes into vogue, or on a theme that becomes topical; all these things and more can ‘breathe new life’ into an author’s out-of-print backlist. Authors who believe their works have value, to themselves, to publishers and to other entertainment media want deals with advances and promotion, negotiated on the best terms that the market for their works will bear. They are not impressed by the prospect of being buried amid millions of books in some online bookstack. They do not believe that mass-licensing arrangements for the benefit of content aggregators is a way to run a healthy book industry, or make the profession of authorship either economically tenable or creatively appealing.

The Google Book Settlement is objectionable not just in its details – though there are many objectionable things about it – but fundamentally, in the way that copyright-owners are opted by default into a scheme for reproducing, selling and sublicensing their works. I cannot put it better than William Cavanaugh, the attorney who presented the case for the US Department of Justice at the Fairness Hearing: he said that the settlement “essentially turn[s] copyright law on its head because it eviscerates the requirement of prior approval from the copyright holder”.

Without prior approval, there is no copyright. Copyright is a right to authorize reproduction.

Here’s something else that Cavanaugh said: “It is the right to control one’s work that creates the incentive to produce it.”

Every age gets the culture that it pays for: pays for in money, and pays for in respect.

The market in e-books is taking off. If we let the market take its course, then, a few years down the line, most in-copyright books of value will be available, permanently, in e-editions. Given demand, publishers, some of them specialists, will track down and negotiate with the copyright-owners of those scarce but sought-after academic monographs, those out-of-print novels whose authors still have a following, and most of the rest of the misnamed ‘lost books’.

Time enough after that to worry about the rest of the books, the so-called orphans, and the books that nobody wants.

There is nothing new about reprint publishing. What is new is that the web makes it possible to efficiently match the niche publication with its readers, and the costs of keeping a digital work available are very low.

We can have a diverse, innovative market in e-books or we can have a Google monopoly. We can have a publishing environment in which authors whose works are in demand will be properly paid, because there will be competing outlets for their work. Or we can write RIP over literature in the long forms: the novel, the memoir, trade-published non-fiction, and Google Books shall be its mausoleum.

We don’t need the Google Book Settlement: what we need is what we have, a living culture, generating real value.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments