LeGuin Quits Authors Guild
Over Google Settlement

Ursula LeGuin resigned from the Authors Guild on December 18 in protest of its acceptance of the amended Google book search settlement. The full text of the letter has been published on her website. LeGuin emphasized that she is continuing her membership in SFWA and the National Writers Union, both part of the  Open Book Alliance that opposes the settlement.

In October, after the Department of Justice advised the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York not to accept the proposed class action settlement in The Authors Guild Inc. et al. v. Google Inc., the judge gave the parties another month to come up with an amended settlement. Then, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Though [Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers] kept the world waiting until the last legal minute, the parties to the proposed Google Book Search settlement managed to meet their new November 13 deadline to file a revamped version [Settlement 2.0 ]with the federal judge overseeing the case.

Now the legal clock has resumed ticking.

The Association of Research Libraries news reports that the Court set a January 28 deadline for class members to opt out of the amended settlement agreement or to file objections. The Department of Justice has until February 4 to file its comments. Then the Court will hold the fairness hearing on February 18.

LeGuin’s resignation from the Authors Guild came about a month after Settlement 2.0 was submitted to the judge. Her letter states:

18 December 2009

To Whom it may concern at the Authors Guild:

I have been a member of the Authors Guild since 1972.

At no time during those thirty-seven years was I able to attend the functions, parties, and so forth offered by the Guild to members who happen to live on the other side of the continent. I have naturally resented this geographical discrimination, reflected also in the officership of the Guild, always almost all Easterners. But it was a petty gripe when I compared it to my gratitude to the Guild for the work you were doing in defending writers’ rights. I went on paying top dues and thought it worth it.

And now you have sold us down the river.

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.

So, after being a loyal if invisible member for so long, I am resigning from the Guild. I am, however, retaining membership in the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, both of which opposed the “Google settlement.” They don’t have your clout, but their judgment, I think, is sounder, and their courage greater.

The Authors Guild answered that it regretted LeGuin’s resignation and admitted (in a summary published by the the Guardian):

that “in many respects” it agreed with her position. “We hold the principles of copyright to be fundamental – they are bedrock principles for the Authors Guild and the economics of authorship. That’s why we sued Google in the first place,” it said. “It would therefore have been deeply satisfying, on many levels, to litigate our case to the end and win, enjoining Google from scanning books and forcing it to destroy the scans it had made. It also would have been irresponsible, once a path to a satisfactory settlement became available.”

Offering to discuss the deal with Le Guin “at any time”, the writers’ body pointed out that if it had lost its case against Google, anyone, not just the search engine, could have digitised copyright-protected books and made them available online, prompting the “uncontrolled scanning of books” and “incalculable” damage to copyright protection. “The lessons of recent history are clear: when digital and online technologies meet traditional media, traditional media generally wind up gutted. Constructive engagement – in this case turning Google’s infringement to our advantage – is sometimes the only realistic solution,” it said.

There are many online resources about the amended settlement and objections made to it, among them The Public-Interest Book Search Initiative of the New York Law School’s “Objections to the Google Books Settlement and Responses in the Amended Settlement: A Report.”

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

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6 thoughts on “LeGuin Quits Authors Guild
Over Google Settlement

  1. After I posted my comment above, and then seeing so many others spell her surname without the space, I considered asking Mike to fix my spelling, but if Gary is correct I had it right from the first.

    Yay. Go me. And other expressions of self-approval.

  2. The Google/Author’s Guild Settlement completely sidesteps the issue of whether scanning a complete book to display “snippets” is fair use. Instead, the Settlement is an ongoing publishing contract that gives Google broad publication and sales powers that last for the entire copyright term.

    This means the Author’s Guild’s reply to Ursula LeGuin is bogus. Yes, the AG _might_ have lost the “snippet” suit in court. No lawsuit is a sure thing. However, if the AG had _won_ their original suit–or at the very least hammered out in court a harmless-to-copyright-holders definition of “snippet”–that precedent _would_ have protected copyright holders. Since the AG set no precedent, any and every other party that wants to scan entire books to display “snippets” is still free to do so and wait for someone to sue _them_. In short, the Author’s Guild has protected no copyrights at all. They’ve just given Google a huge grant of rights owned by numerous copyright holders with no connection to either the Author’s Guild or Google, and which, contrary to Google’s PR, are by no means all out-of-print or so-called orphan works.

    Let me add, that I admire Ursula LeGuin for her principles and her courage to stand by them.

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