Le Guin and Amazon Hate It. Tan, Turow, and Keillor Are In.

Right around the time when eCommerce became the buzz word of the day, I worked with a girl named Angela at a software firm who contracted out full project teams to companies who had not yet trained their workforce to use web based technology. Angela and I considered ourselves artist, but avoided being the suffering kind by working as technical writers and HTML coders. Our personal usage of the internet was all about access to free information and cool stuff. The projects we worked on were all about how to make money on the web, which caused us to view all profit-interested companies as greedy and abusers of this new wonderful technology. We had a secret catch phrase that we emailed to back and forth and sometimes scribbled on each other’s note pads in meetings: “Use the internet for good, not for evil.”  Our heroes in this emerging technology field were the founders of Google. Their philosophy seemed to be all about using the internet for good. Their mega search engine was free to use and originally had no favorite links in the search results.

Fast forward to 2004. Google is now a huge company making loads of money, a lot of it through their online advertising. They announced that they are going to start a “library project” which involves scanning books from the public domain, creating a huge digital library that can be shared by the masses. By December that year, they started scanning books that were still copyrighted but defended the action by explaining that only snippets are going to be shown online (even though they scan the all pages of every book). Authors started to rumble and a law suit was filed in 2005.

In 2008 a settlement was reached with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Google agreed to pay 125 million dollars to resolve outstanding claims and establish an independent “Book Rights Registry,” which would provide revenue from sales and advertising to authors and publishers who agree to digitize their books. Publishers in France and Germany were very unhappy about the settlement and the US Department of Justice warned that the terms might violate several US copy right laws. It’s back to the drawing board for all parties involved.

January 28th, 2009 was the last day for authors to opt out of the new agreement that has been drafted, it was also the last day to file objections and a flurry of those have been received. One of the new changes involves Google helping to set book prices by developing an algorithm that simulates what the prices would be under competitive market conditions. Guess what Amazon and other retailers think about that! Yeah, none of them are fans.

As with any debate, there are people with strong opinions on both sides, but even those that consider themselves in the middle are confused about the settlement. Public Knowledge, an advocacy group finds the spirit of Google’s effort—”making knowledge and creative works available to the general public”—to agree with its mission, but it wants to see the contents of orphaned works equally available to all, rather than made the exclusive domain of Google. To make this happen, Public Knowledge thinks that the current copyright law needs to be changed and that a settlement that is limited to two parties won’t provide the solution. The court hearing for the new agreement is set for Feb 18th.

John Timmer wrote a good article about the new settlement for Ars Technica: The Art of Technology, the BBC News offers a good summary, and New York Greater Metropolitan Area chapter of the Internet Society web site has a 115 minute long webcast of a panel of experts discussing the implications of the settlement, which they jointly hosted with the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the National Writers Union (NWU), and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). (It’s worth just watching the first 20 min or so to get the background from Paul Aiken from the Authors Guild.)

So what do you think? Is Google’s library project using the internet for good of for evil? I’ll have to see if I can reconnect with Angela and see what she thinks.


  • Jason Sommer jason says:

    i am on board with the sentiment, as Public Knowledge is. more people reading more books? there is no down side to that. not everyone in the world has access to a first rate library – in fact, i bet most people in the world don’t. but internet access is becoming more widespread. and IF poor people in rural china can access “the federalist papers” or a book from the dalai lama or “presumed innocent” – then that’s a great thing.

    it also puts writers in a position to put their (lack of) money where their mouth is. do your write because you want to be read? or because you want to make money? i’m not suggesting writers don’t deserve to be paid for their work, but this does go to the heart of a writer’s motivation.

    as for google being the only company running the show, maybe we just need some time, or maybe it’s not such a bad thing. apple singlehandedly rejiggered the music industry with 99¢ songs. you hear a lot of music fans bitching about that? and if there’s money to be made in the digital book scanning business, someone else will try to do it better, right? isn’t that how free markets work? success is going to breed competition. eventually. theoretically.

  • Shira Richman says:

    I don’t know exactly what I think yet. I love the idea of all the oldies being available in whole online–everything ever written by Virginia Woolf, for instance. And I’m happy when my engineering students find books scanned by Google because lord knows they are far too progressive to enter the library and physically look through cumbersome pages. Oh, and I love the idea of doing quick searches for passages in books online, like the part where some fiction technique book was talking about filtering. I need to find that somehow.

  • Asa says:

    I too love the idea about the stuff in the public domain being available in digital form, but am not sure what to think about the copyrighted stuff. Also, right now Google has a huge jump on anybody else that might want to scan books, basically nobody will be able to catch up if this becomes a legal thing to do. It always makes me uncomfortable when one company holds all the power, even if they are as cool and progressive as Google.

  • Diana Nicoletti says:

    Sure, I’d like to get something for nothing. But life doesn’t work that way. Not without hurting some key players. The way Amazon scans portions of copyrighted books so the potential buyer can “see inside” is good marketing. But Google scanning the entire copyrighthed book . . . things that make me say, “Hmmm . . . looks like foul play.” Why the entire book??? Who is planning what? And setting prices by algorithm that simulates what the prices would be under competitive market conditions??? Can you say, “Market Manipulation?” This duck is looking and quacking like a duck while being choked, and it ain’t daffy. And, the age-old question arises: who will protect the orphans???

  • sid says:

    I agree with Asa about one company, no matter how cool, having all the power. Companies can change. The cool can sell out, retire, die, get bought out etc.

    I think they should have started, and ended with things clearly in the public domain.

  • jeanne savery says:

    I have yet to see a clear statement that the authors of copyrighted material gets royalties. If they do I’m still ambivalent. I like have reader access, but don’t like monopolies.

  • dancinghawk says:

    copyrighted work should not be distributed without permission of the author/publisher … isn’t that the point of a copyright? ummm, the ONLY point, really? that said, i LOVE having work available online that’s in the public domain, and if Google (or anyone else) that wants to distribute copyrighted material gets permission to scan copyrighted work, there’s definitely a market … nice article!

  • Virginia says:

    It’s just scary when the channel that provides creative content is so much more powerful that the artist/creator who provided the content. I thought getting around that was supposed to be a main benefit of the ‘new digital age.’ The flat out presumption and arrogance of Google is a bit disheartening.

  • Asa says:

    Great comments friends! I’m hoping the hearing in February will clarify the copyright laws for digital books in general. It seems to me that we treat them differently than we do online movies and music. It’s very clear that it’s illegal to download a movie or music file for free, so why isn’t it the same with books that are not yet in the public domain?

  • Teresa says:

    Writing is a profession in which education is required and education isn’t free. Professionals should be paid for their work, no matter how much they love doing it. Freedom of information is also important, but isn’t necessarily free.

  • Asa, thank you for such a wonderfully timely and informative article. Of course, I always have an opinion. :) Quite simply, it is this.

    1. The idea that I love my writing less if I insist on getting paid for it is insulting. Writers have to live, pay bills, raise kids and OMG, eat. So wanting to be paid for my work is flat out a matter of necessity.

    2. *Information* *is* free. My brain is not. The hours nad hours I put into crafting a work of fiction…time away from my family…dues to RWA to learn more about my craft…research books, equipment and writing eccoutrements…None of those are free. So if someone wants to go think of my idea and write it out so they can read it for free…more power to them.

    3. If someone wants to read non-fiction facts for free, then they are certainly welcome to do the traveling, exhausting research and rack their own brain to come to the same conclusion as author x. Then, again, more power to them.

    Fiction, non-fiction, it isn’t just plain, dry facts. Someone puts this stuff together. Someone has such a passion for their work that they fight through years of rejections, education and the ego-battering publishing process to have their work available for someone else to read. That kind of passion isn’t measured in dollar signs.

    But my grocery bill sure is.

    • Asa says:

      Great points Jamie and I really appreciate hearing from someone that makes their living of writing. My favorite word phrase from your post is “ego-battering publishing process,” I think I’ll steal it. :-)

      Seriously though, as I said earlier, it disturbs me that scanning someone’s prose is not measured against the same standards as downloading music or movies. That’s considered illegal, several people have been prosecuted for it, so why are not the same laws applied to books?

  • The same laws are applicable. That’s what copyright laws are for. It just takes a huge court battle, like the music industry against Napster or the movie industry putting those clips before all movies before someone pays attention.

    Similar with software, also. We figure Microsoft makes plenty of money off of us, so why do we need to buy different copies for different computers in our family’s household? But, because of thieves, the innocent get burned. Honestly have three computers break irreparably and you have to buy a brand new Office. You aren’t trying to steal, or make money selling copies. Just trying to use the programs you need. But, you’ve loaded it three times and it’s done.

    So people are ignoring copyright on books. There is a site I looked on yesterday offering mine for free download. I don’t make a living off of my writing. I barely pay for my writing with my writing income. Dues, Research and Writing books, paper, ink, computers and software, a domain name and my website. If the books are downloaded for free, I make no income and my husband, in this economy, has to pay our household bills and for my writing necessities. How fair is that, really?

    Libraries buy one physical copy and loan it to the general public, one at a time. Their electronic loans will be for one copy, one loan at a time. And the one copy they bought counts as a sale to publishers and distributors. If someone needs to read for free, there it is.

    But piracy sites are springing up all over, offering an author’s entire backlist for free download. Many consumers, focused on getting it free, don’t even consider the consequences.

    Not only does that author lose out on that .556 cents per copy (Yeah, aren’t we getting rich when you buy a copy for $6.99?), but distributors see you haven’t sold enough copies and refuse to stock more.

    Meaning bookstores refuse to stock more.

    Meaning publishers see all the copies of your books not being distributed or stocked and, guess what? They don’t offer another contract.

    So, Google making books free, piracy sites making books free, and both with no limits at all…

    Well, you know how annoying it is when a TV show you love gets canceled after a season or two? You know how annoying it is to read two books of an author’s series, love them, and wait forever for a book 3?

    It is not the author’s fault when they can’t finish their series. It isn’t because the inspiration died. It isn’t because they got bored and moved on.

    It’s because the consumer used their buying power to speak. Free, stolen, pirated books don’t speak for anyone.

    It’s going to take the lawsuit against Google, the lawsuits agains piracy sites, and consumers buying power to make a statement for protecting author and reader’s legal rights.

    I am so glad you opened this discussion, Asa. I hadn’t even realized I still had so much to say. LOL

    I sympathize with wanting stuff really cheap or free. As a consumer, my income must focus on the necessities of life and the needs of my children. But as a society, there is no way everything can be free.

    Books aren’t just information and data and dry facts. They are entertainment. They are hypotheses and conclusions for how to live. They are the sharing of ideas and thinking. They are inspiration, heart, blood and tears.

    Blogs are free, open to anyone online. But a comment takes much less time than writing a book, researching it and getting it published and the fact is, that costs money. For everyone, even consumers.

  • My long-winded point being:

    The laws are there. They just don’t have the clout of popular opinion and respect, yet, so they are ignored. A few well-publicized battles and a grass-roots campaign to educate consumers about how their own habits are limiting their entertainment, and the laws will be observed more closely. :)

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