steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Google Book Settlement

It occurs to me that I've ranted almost everywhere but here about the Google Book Settlement - nor has it been much discussed on my friends list. Has anyone else been wondering what it's all about, and whether to opt in or out (though of course it's now too late for the latter)? Have I just missed out on all the LJ discussions, somehow?

To me it seems quite monstrous. The most convenient detailed case against it is probably Gillian Spraggs', here; though I also recommend the submissions to the court of Scott Gant, author and copyright lawyer, here (to the original settlement) and here (to the amended version).

I was contacted a few days ago by Benedicte Page of The Bookseller for my views, and I think that she may use some quotes in this Friday's edition [ETA here is the link], but for the full record, here's what I said:

My objections to the Settlement are mostly ones of principle, though there are also practical aspects.

The first principle of course is that the Settlement inverts the whole idea of copyright, as enshrined in the Berne convention, that copyright belongs with the copyright holder unless the holder chooses to sell or otherwise waive that right. Under the Google settlement, rights holders are assumed to have agreed to sell their rights to Google unless they explicitly opt out, and the onus is on them to do so.

Moreover, the decision as to whether to opt out is made needlessly difficult by the obscure and highly legalistic terminology of the Settlement, which has bamboozled professional publishers and agents alike (let alone authors), especially on this side of the Atlantic where laws and legal language are significantly different from that of the States. Effectively we are being offered a pig in a poke. Over the last few weeks the internet has been alive with the cries of authors running around asking what it all means, what they should do, who really understands it, what's the latest rumour? This is not the atmosphere in which rational business decisions can or should be taken - and nor, I think, was it designed to be.

This is all bad enough even for those of us who are lucky enough to have agents and publishers, and easy internet access. Many people don't; and consequently, many thousands of rights holders will have be deemed to have 'opted in' to this Settlement without ever having heard of it. I have seen no evidence that Google has made any effort to contact individually those whose copyright it is intending to infringe. This is clearly inequitable.

Another objection of principle is that Google is, in effect, being rewarded for breaking the law. The Settlement arises out of an action taken against Google by the Authors' Guild in America, for Google's infringement of copyright in showing 'snippets' of copyrighted texts. Instead of dealing with that issue, they have cooked up a deal between them which means that Google will be able to infringe copyright on a far grander scale, taking in authors well beyond US jurisdiction (and of course far beyond the membership of the Guild) while the Guild itself will be rewarded with the task of maintaining the Registry. This is rather as if a policeman caught a burglar stealing money from his house, and then agreed that he would not only let the burglar go but would allow him steal from every house on the street without fear of arrest, so long as he got his cut. In exchange, the householders can be assured that no one else will be allowed to steal from them. Outside the publishing industry, this would be called a protection racket.

In addition to problems of principle, the Settlement appears to have been rather shoddily and loosely drafted. Of particular concern are those areas, such as the question of whether Google will remove one's digitized works from its database on request, where Google currently 'behaves well' on a voluntary basis, but is under no obligation to do so in the terms of the Settlement. Why would anyone believe that Google will choose to extend its 'current policy' into the indefinite future?

The payments being offered are very hard to evaluate. The sums may turn out to be reasonable, but I don't feel that at this stage of the market's evolution anyone is in a position to make that assessment certainly, and I've no wish to sell my copyright for a mess of pottage. It is also evident (see Gillian Spraggs' article) that for a British author especially, claiming the money may well be a complex and expensive business.

At some point in the future, if and when I wish to sell my rights and if and when someone wants to make me an offer for them, I'll negotiate. That is the way to do business; not by being railroaded into a one-size-fits-all deal in an atmosphere of panic.

Overall, I'm baffled by the support for the agreement of authors' rights organizations such as the Society of Authors (of which I'm not a member, by the way). Perhaps they have some overwhelming argument that trumps all the above, but if so they're keeping very quiet about it!

Yesterday, Page contacted me again, with an article in which the Government expressed its support for the Settlement. Here's a snippet from what it said:

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told The Bookseller it was "right" that the Publishers Association "leads the process". Both the French and the German governments filed objections to the first Settlement last autumn. This month the French Publishers Association said it had also approved 10 pages of objections to the second draft of the Settlement.

The spokesperson added: "Stakeholders in the UK have engaged positively with Google about the terms of their settlement on Google Books, and the UK Publishers Association strongly supports the revised settlement.

"It is right that the Publishers Association leads in this process. Digitisation of books potentially offers both cultural and economic benefits with improved access to works and new revenue streams for copyright owners, but it is important that any solution properly balances the needs of authors, publishers, consumers and competitors."

My reply:

Unsurprisingly, I find the Government's stance quite wrongheaded. First, we have here a situation in which the intellectual property of tens of thousands (at least) of British citizens might be taken from under their noses by a civil court in a foreign country, in many cases without their knowledge, and given to a foreign corporation for commercial exploitation. Yet the Minister for Intellectual Property, whose primary function is surely to guard the interests of those citizens, is one of the Settlement's main cheerleaders. Madness!

That, I suppose, is the main point, but in the article you attached there are plenty of other questionable assumptions. Why, for example, does the Government think it appropriate for the Publishers' Association to 'take the lead' on this matter? The Publishers' Association exists to look after the interests of publishers (the clue's in the name): these are assuredly not identical with those of authors and other rights holders. Publishers, with thousands of books on their lists, stand to make a reasonable amount of revenue out of the deal. Authors will make pennies. (Having said that, the Society of Authors has been no better, and has clearly been out of its depth over the whole business.) As for the many rights holders who are not authors but authors' children, widows, etc. - the Government doesn't even list them amongst those whose interests are to be protected, despite the fact that they are the group most likely to be unaware of the Settlement and the fact that they have "opted in" without their knowledge or consent.

Clearly David Lammy has a dream of a bright, digital, interconnected future, where everything is available to everyone at the touch of a button. I don't dissent from that, particularly. However, a grubby, carpetbagging deal, stitched up for commercial profit in an undemocratic way (for this is effectively a change in the law without benefit of legislation either here or in the States) is not a basis on which to build that shining future.

So, that's my view - but what do others round here think?
Tags: books, current affairs
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