Authors tell Google to suck it

February 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In what amounts to a strong rebuke to Internet behemoth Google’s proposed plan to digitize the world, the Guardian is today reporting that court documents show some 6,500 authors, from Thomas Pynchon to Philip Pullman, have opted out of the controversial Google Book Search settlement. The deal is an amended version of a similar agreement reached in October 2008. That version of the settlement was widely contested by international bodies, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as to whether it violated American antitrust laws. The new agreement, which was meant to address the most contentious issues, was to be ruled on in a fairness hearing last Thursday. However, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin declined to make a ruling, saying that there was “just too much to digest.”

From The Associated Press:

In court papers submitted last week, Google Inc., which is based in Mountain View, Calif., defended its deal with authors by saying its digital library lives up to the purpose of copyright law, which is to create and distribute expressive works.

“No one seriously disputes that approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” Google said.

The Department of Justice said Google and the plaintiffs have made substantial improvements to the original settlement, but it said “substantial issues remain.”

One of those “substantial issues” appears to be the fate of so-called “orphan works,” that is, out-of-copyright works for which no rightsholder can be found. American Libraries quotes Judge Chin as specifying orphan works as one of the key issues in the settlement: “’I would surmise that Google wants the orphan books and this is what it is about – orphan books that will remain unclaimed,’ Judge Chin conjectured.”

Regardless, the number of authors who have decided to opt out of the agreement whether or not it gets judicial approval is going to be a tough hurdle for Google to surmount. One of the authors who opted out, Ursula K. Le Guin, famously resigned from the Authors Guild because of their support for the deal. In an open letter to the Guild last December, Le Guin wrote:

I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

In addition to copyright and antitrust concerns, critics have also suggested that the deal raises serious privacy issues.

While confessing aggravation over the way this entire procedure is dragging itself out, yr. humble correspondent must express sympathy with the authors and others concerned about the implications of the settlement for copyright, and nervousness about the prospect of vesting so much in one set of corporate hands. Google’s proselytizers claim that the Borgesian digital library the company is proposing, which would feature ready access to everything ever written (as someone who was once in charge of a publisher’s slush pile, I can only shudder with horror at that prospect), would be an unqualified boon to humanity. My own view is that in addition to taking significant control out of the hands of content creators, the settlement also represents a dangerous step along the road to media and corporate consolidation. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly want one single gatekeeper in charge of allowing access to the world’s accumulated knowledge. Particularly if that gatekeeper is a publicly traded company.

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