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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Are You as Puzzled as I am

By The Google Settlement?

You must have all seen the announcement some months ago that the groups representing authors had reached a settlement with Google about digitizing our books. Here is a useful posting about it, with links, from a university librarian: As I pointed out here, there has been ongoing debate since — the Robert Darnton piece in the New York Review of Books, for example. Speaking as an author, though, I’ve sidelined the issue. I neither believed I would make any money from the settlement — despire the millions of dollars listed in the articles, I knew that the tiny share my books would accure would hardly be worth thinking about — nor was I too worried about how the future life of my books would change. But then I read this Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, 

The author is an advocate for authors, and clearly is making a case as he would in court. I would love to see a response from the Google-Authors Guild side. And I am most likely to remain, along with the vast majority of authors, in the category of people who ignore the settlement, go about their business, make books, and pretend it never happened. Any smart lawyer types out there? Can you parse this for us?

And yet, even as I ignore the Settlement, it presses in two ways on my sense of books and publishing. In one way, I love digital books. I use them all the time for my research. And, yes, exactly as envisioned, reading online has prompted me to buy the hardcover (real?) book, either because of gaps in what is online, or because I want to have it as a physical book, not a file. The more information we can have at our fingertips the better. In another sense, though, I do know that the whole idea of the settlement is flawed and — as the Journal piece says — unfair to authors in the matter of permissions. We never secured digital rights to quotations, art, lyrics, poems, extracts when we created our books. No publisher gave us a budget for those rights, and we saw no reason to dig into our pockets to clear them. Some rights might now be costly, some might be cheap or free. But the time any of us would need to spend to figure all that is — as the commerical says — priceless. No working author, especially those of us who create nonfiction, has the time to go back, review OP, in-copyright, books and figure out what rights need to be cleared for Google and how to do that. 

Perhaps the Settlement is fine for novels — but even they sometimes have perms for poems or lyrics. But it does create a terrible problem for nonfiction. Who should be responsible for clearing perms on an edition we authors never envisioned? The problem is that, the more dominant Google Books becomes, the higher the price to authors for not being part of it. Yet the price for joining in is too high. It seems to me some larger legal understanding of perms in digital books is needed, as part of a re-view of the whole structure of permissions. But that is not going to happen any time soon.

So, I’m puzzled. And you?