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American Way Staff
American AirlinesNexos Magazine Staff
Celebrated Living Staff
Digitizing books and making them available online to everybody is a good thing. Or is it?
Say you write a book. Say someone illicitly obtains a digitized copy and posts it on the Internet. Thousands of people download your book — for free — and the hard copies on bookstore shelves go unsold. Disgusted at your book’s performance, your publisher sends the returned copies to Cheap Books R Us and says thanks but no thanks to your next manuscript.
You’ve now lost years of work, and your career is idling, if not coughing to a halt.
Meanwhile, your publisher has lost thousands of dollars on paper, printing costs, distribution, marketing, and your (probably measly) advance.
This is, roughly, the Napster-like nightmare of authors and publishers feeling threatened by online libraries and searchable texts — namely, Google’s partnership with five major libraries to digitize their entire collections and make them searchable online, whether under copyright or not. Despite assurances that a keyword search will deliver only snippets of any book, and predictions that those searches might actually lead to increased book sales, publishers and authors have sued Google over its Print Libraries program. One of the plaintiffs’ main concerns is the fact that Google’s library partners will get full digital copies of every book, even those under copyright.
“We’re not opposed to the basic idea of making books searchable online, just not without getting a license to do so,” says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, whose suit against Google is pending. “It’s a pretty plain case of copyright infringement.”
Now, both sides are proclaiming their rights. Google says it’s only creating an electronic card catalog, and that allowing people to search books amounts to “fair use” under copyright law. Publishers and authors can opt out of the Print Libraries project by asking Google to withdraw their books.
On the other hand, publishers and authors think Google is appropriating “the property of others for its own commercial use unless it is told, case by case and instance by instance, not to,” according to a statement from the Association of American University Presses. And it doesn’t help Google’s cause that it happens to be the most successful online company in the United States, with a market capitalization of some $123 billion (at press time). If anyone could afford to pay authors and publishers for the right to put texts online, or so the reasoning goes, it’s Google.
GOOGLE AND ITS library partners sound positively altruistic when they talk about the digitization of books. “Even before we started Google, we dreamed of making the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online,” Google cofounder Larry Page says in the Google Story. “The Google library project will transform the way we do research and scholarship,” according to a statement from James Hilton, University of Michigan associate provost for academic information and instructional technology affairs, interim librarian, and professor of psychology. “For the first time, everyone will be able to search the written record of human knowledge.”
Other libraries and technology companies started to profess the same sentiments. “Let’s get the people’s books back to the people!” exhorted Brewster Kahle in announcing the Open Content Alliance, a collaborative project of Yahoo!, Adobe, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, MSN, and institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the University of Toronto. The alliance aims to digitize books in the public domain — anything published before 1923 — and deliver them in a cool on-screen format that looks exactly like a book, only two-dimensional.
Meanwhile, cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons — a site where authors and artists can license their own work — raised more than $1.2 million to expand its license offerings and help its license holders find buyers or licensees. Random House announced that it would put its titles online, for sale at an average of four cents per page (recipes from cookbooks will be more). HarperCollins said it would put its catalog of titles online in a searchable format, aiming to have the library running by summer. A Google — or Yahoo! or Amazon — search would lead users to the HarperCollins site.
And Amazon touted its own digital-book programs: Using its Search Inside the Book technology as a foundation, one new service will allow customers to buy online access to a page, a chapter, or an entire book. Another service will let customers pay a fee to have online access to the actual books they buy.
Then, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sony CEO Howard Stringer unveiled his company’s electronic book reader, with megalong battery life and a screen designed to reduce eyestrain. What to read on it? One of the HarperCollins, Random House, or Simon & Schuster titles downloadable from the Sony Connect website.
Could publishers, then, come up with their own online business models to preempt a Grokster-type piracy disaster? Could Sony’s e-book be the iPod of electronic readers, leading to widespread acceptance of downloaded books? Or might Apple, already delving into TV and video, go even more multiformat with its iTunes store, necessitating a name change?
NOW, BACK TO Google. Normally, libraries enter into electronic licenses with publishers so they can offer those books electronically. License fees are typically shared with authors fifty-fifty. Why couldn’t Google pay on a per-usage basis?
That’s exactly what might happen — that, or another negotiated settlement that’s rooted in the marketplace, says Ed Dailey, an intellectual-property lawyer who wrote an article on the subject for the National Law Journal. As he and his coauthor analyzed decades of copyright cases, they realized that courts have never set absolute guidelines that apply to all copyrighted works in all situations; that kind of black-and-white judgment would only impede technology. Judges have, instead, balanced the author’s (and publisher’s) rights with the public’s right to have access to books, music, movies, and the like. “It seems to me that the publishing companies could end up benefiting from what Google is doing, that it’s a marketplace-allocation dispute rather than a copyright dispute,” Dailey says. “What this says to people in the industry, whether authors or publishers or studios or artists or consumers, is that you want to look at a way to find common ground, so you don’t end up with a zero-sum game. And in fact, it will be worked out.”
Here’s another scenario: You’ve spent years writing books that sell only a few thousand copies each. Your career is in the toilet. So, figuring you have nothing to lose, you pull your out-of-print books off the shelf, digitize them, and post them on the Creative Commons website. First chapter free, the rest for a modest fee.
You might be discovered (or rediscovered) through a Google search. You might sell some books. And if you sell enough, you might get calls from New York publishers eager for your next manuscript.
Career of a midlist author, saved.
It’s possible. Whether it’s probable, only time and the Internet can tell.