Friday, April 03, 2009

WSJ: Google Settlement a Rip-off For Writers

This is certainly one take on the subject, and one I have a lot of sympathy for.

No one elected these "class representatives" to represent America's tens of thousands of authors and publishers to convey their digital rights to Google. Nor are the interests of this so-called class identical. There is nothing more individual in the world than a book, an author, a publisher, and the value of a contract. The aging baby boomers now flacking the settlement don't seem to understand that PDF scanning (how Google and everyone else digitizes books) isn't rocket science; it's cheap and easy. Books will be digitized without Google. But the Google settlement sets in amber today's overhyped role of the Internet, ruled by that great and magnificent Oz -- Google.

Sound like hyperbole? Consider this: Under the settlement, every rights-owner in America is supposed to hand over all their private contract data, on every edition of every work they ever wrote -- and every excerpt permission ever granted to others -- at the peril of losing the money Google will be making on their backs. This is a massive burden on everyone in the book industry, making us all, in effect, Google's data-entry slaves. Indeed, in most cases such information about every permission ever granted is unlocatable. It opens a Pandora's box of disputes and mistaken claims about who actually owns what.

Selling off author rights -- and publisher rights, for that matter -- so cheaply does seem to open a possible pandora's box. And once you've done so, there's no stepping back again. It also legitimizes blatantly illegal activity. might be home to a small but increasing amount of illegal downloading at the moment, put up there by individuals with little regards for copyright (most of it is hardly usable, outside of reading on one's computer; it has been scanned by amateurs who have not formatted it for a proper e-book reading experience, and is therefore unlikely to cannibalize any real sales, at least at this point. Nor can you trust that a lot of the content up there is complete or unaltered. Scanning a text adequately, formatting it for proper reading on the variety of hand-held devices now out there, is a lot harder than putting up an MP3 of a song, which means I do believe we have less to fear from this than is generally assumed.); but Google consciously decided that they would ignore copyright and use their wealth and power to bully writers and publishers into submission. At the very least there seems to me to be a principal of some sort in not agreeing that this is okay, in reserving our rights for future legal action, either individually or collectively, once we figure out how this will develop. I've a lot more thinking and reading to do about this before the May 5th deadline, but that's where I am at the moment.

There are those out there -- The Writers' Union, for one -- who believe we should accept/not opt out of the Google Settlement. Perhaps they are right here. Don't know.

Thoughts anyone?

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