September 11, 2009

Google's caboodle of books

Authors and publishers are trying to put a stop to Google's digital library project, which would digitize millions of books now sitting unread on library shelves.

Their complaint is that Google is not first seeking permission from the authors or publishers of those works, which are out of print but still under copyright. Google's proposed settlement, which comes up for judicial review October 7, would pay damages to any author whose rights are shown to be violated by the project. Opponents say Google should get permission to digitize first, not offer apologies after the fact. Google argues that in many cases, the copyright holders cannot be found to give permission.

Either way, I believe authors have more to gain from the project than they have to lose.

Sales driver: While researching journaling as a spiritual practice for my Sunday school students, I found at Google books Ron Klug's How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. This proved so helpful, I went to Amazon and bought a copy. So the searchability of a digital library can direct readers to books they might otherwise never discover. The proposed settlement would allow out-of-print books to be printed and sold by Google, Amazon and others. This could be a great benefit for authors not inclined to self-publish their out-of-print books.

Research tool: I'm developing a character whose mother is Welsh. I perused a map of Wales to pick a euphonious hometown for my fictional Welshwoman. I found Llanavan, a town named for St. Avan, of whom I have never heard. Well -- here is the dark side of reasearch, which leads down trails of cross-references far away from one's point. But I didn't wish to pick this town without learning about its namesake, so of course I turned to Google, which helpfully found Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints by Matthew Bunson and Margaret Bunson, and even dumped me onto the relevant page, which tells me Avan was a sixth-century Welsh bishop and that all that is known of him comes from an inscription in the Llanavan churchyard where he was buried. Ah, well. It would have been much more interesting if he had turned out to be the patron saint of accountants, or something. (Remind me to someday tell you the story of St. Chad, the "patron saint of disputed elections".) Still, in less than five minutes I learned all I needed to know about the origin of Llanavan's name. I couldn't drive to the library in that time, and even if I had, the county library system doesn't have this book anywhere in its collection.

The digital library will bring to light millions of pieces of information just like this. Those who moan about the impropriety of Google having a monopoly are missing a crucial point: Google has a monopoly only because they thought of it first. Rather like Microsoft or the old AT&T. It certainly needn't remain a monopoly. Just as there are multiple physical libraries, there could be multiple digital libraries.

This is fundamentally a debate about adapting existing copyright laws to new technologies. Terence Ross, a copyright lawyer not invoved in the matter, is quoted in a Bloomberg article, saying, "Innovation often poses problems for the law and established bureaucracy.”

That's an understatement. I'm reminded of Peggy Lee and others who provided voices for Disney films, whose contracts with the studio didn't cover royalties to be paid when films were re-released on VHS and DVD, because of course neither medium had been invented at the time.

As a writer, I wish to be paid for my work, so I understand the complaints of those who fear the digital library will prevent their earning proper royalties. But I think those fears are unfounded. An author earns only one royalty payment for a volume sold to a library, no matter how many people subsequently read that copy. Does that mean we don't want our books in libraries at all? I should think not.

Google's plan may not be perfect. The court may call for changes to it. I agree the court needs to ensure that copyrights are honored. But Google's project is at its heart a good one. I find it hard to classify as evil something that brings old or obscure books out of the dark stacks and into the light.

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