SFWA Joins Strange Bedfellows
Against Google Settlement

The September 4 deadline has passed for authors to decide whether to opt out of the controversial Google Book Search settlement, but the debate continues. As William Skidelsky in the Observer says about the related Google Books Library Project:

In broad terms, [the] opponents have levelled two sets of criticisms at Google.

First, they have questioned whether the primary responsibility for digitally archiving the world’s books should be allowed to fall to a commercial company. In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton, the head of Harvard University’s library, argued that because such books are a common resource – the possession of us all – only public, not-for-profit bodies should be given the power to control them.

The second, related criticism is that Google’s scanning of books is actually illegal. This allegation has led to Google becoming mired in a legal battle whose scope and complexity makes the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case in Bleak House look straightforward.

The article notes that Google’s efforts will make a great many out-of-print books accessible to by the public, and that many authors found the terms of the Google Book Search settlement to be fair:.

James Gleick, an American science writer and member of the Authors Guild, broadly agrees. He says that, although Google’s initial scanning of in-copyright books made him uncomfortable, the settlement itself is a fair deal for authors.

“The thing that needs to be emphasised is that this so-called market over which Google is being given dominance – the market in out-of-print books – doesn’t currently exist. That’s why they’re out of print. In real life, I can’t see what the damage is – it’s only good.”

Google, of course, is not only scanning books for which copyright has expired, it also is scanning copyrighted work (where the author or heirs hold the rights). Google displays excerpts of the copyrighted works, arguing that constitutes “fair use” of the text and is within the law. The fact remains, Google has not obtained permission to copy the entire work.

The Science Fiction Writers of America issued a press release in August listing its objections to the settlement, among them:

  • The proposed Google Book Settlement potentially creates a monopoly by granting Google excessive power to control the market for out-of-print books that are offered to the general public.
  • The “opt-out” mechanism proposed for the settlement contradicts the very foundation of copyright.

By settling, Google never fully addressed and litigated the issue of copyright infringement/fair use, which was at the heart of the 2005 lawsuit brought forth by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The settlement further obfuscates the issue of how Google’s scans and publication of the snippets should be treated under U.S. copyright law.

And just a few days ago SFWA announced it has joined the Open Book Alliance, whose mission statement explains:

The Open Book Alliance will counter Google, the Association of American Publishers and the Authors’ Guild’s scheme to monopolize the access, distribution and pricing of the largest digital database of books in the world.  To this end, we will promote fair and flexible solutions aimed at achieving a more robust and open system.

Other members of the Open Book Alliance are:

  • Amazon (amazon.com)
  • American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org)
  • Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (clmp.org)
  • Internet Archive (archive.org)
  • Microsoft (microsoft.com)
  • New York Library Association (nyla.org)
  • Small Press Distribution (spdbooks.org)
  • Special Libraries Association (sla.org)
  • Yahoo.com

The controversy surrounding the Google Book Settlement has produced some strange political bedfellows, as Laura Resnick phrases it. SFWA now is allied with mega-book-dealer Amazon.com and not-particularly-warm-and-fuzzy Microsoft Corporation.

[Thanks to John Mansfield for the link.]

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One thought on “SFWA Joins Strange Bedfellows
Against Google Settlement

  1. Add me to this list of those who opted out of this literary land grab. Despite a big dust up at the Iowa Writers Workshop last year about making electronic copies of MFA thesis’ available online, Google scanned mine and the U of Iowa Library is not one of their purported sources. They also have my current novel “The Shenandoah Spy” which, since there is a Kindle edition, will always be “in print”. Google takes what it wants and waits for people to object. No, that’s not evil, is it? Illegal and unethical, but not “evil”.

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