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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Google Decision

As you all must have seen, a judge has ruled against the Google Settlement, . What does this mean, and mean for authors, editors, publishers, librarians, students? Well, first, what is the Google Settlement? Google, working with several academic libraries, and later the cooperation of major publishers and indeed the Authors Guild (an organization which represents the rights and interests of book creators) have been digitizing books. In the end the goal was to make some 50 million or so books available digitallly. Which books? Any books other than those on sale now where free would compete with sale price. Many folks seemed to like this — say you had an out of print book that was hard for anyone to find, now it would be available in the Google Digital Library; say you were researching something and did not live near a major library, now much of what you needed would be a keystroke away; say you work for a school or library that would like to digitize its holdings but could not afford to, now the deep pockets of Google would come to your aid.

But many people also had problems with the Google proposal. The objections I followed most closely came from Dr. Robert Darnton, in a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, including this one: Darnton argued that a digital library was a great idea, but it should be a government enterprise, a National Digital Library, not the creation, and thus in some senses the property, of a commercial firm. His objection gets to heart of the judge’s ruling. The judge said it is fine to create this library in cases where I as the author agree — sure, I’m glad to give a new life to my out of print book X in digital form. But what about “orphan” books — that is a book where the author passed away or cannot be found, there is no estate or heir available, there is no one with the legal right to speak for the book. In the Google plan, a book would be in the library unless a rights holder said no — thus all of the orphan books would be in. The judge said you should reverse the rules: you our out unless you ask to be in — thus the orphan books would be excluded.

In the end it came down to trust — for now Google has been honorable, has spent its own money, and has treated this enterprise more as an idealistic effort than a profit center. But once it had all the books, could it be trusted to continue to be such a good corporate citizen? I like Darnton’s idea — a national digital library, including orphan books. Then, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, can all compete with one another to provide better access services — in whatever blend of free and for cost makes sense to them as corporations. In other words, the books are there as a national resource, we don’t have to worry about corporate policy shifts. But company’s can make their best efforts to confince us to use their services in using he books.

The judge’s ruling is clearly an effort to refine the Google agreement, not to end it. He made clear that he would be open to a revised version. So we will very likely have some form of Google Books library. I hope that we also have a National Digital Libary.


  1. The notion that Google’s collection of books is a “national trust” is all very nice, but a public company (and I’m pretty sure Google is a public company) has a legal obligation to maximize profits for shareholders, so I have no belief whatesoever that it is being “honorable” in all ways. For me it is setting itself up to control the distribution of millions of books at the lowest cost possible to itself. That smacks of monopoly and since they’re way out front on this, they’d have a monopoly until someone else decides to put up the cash, which could take many years, possibly decades during which we have no alternative but to submit to their terms. No thanks. I don’t want them to offer any of my books (even the dogs that died on the vine) unless they negotiate terms directly with me or my agent. Period. I’d rather lose out completely or make a bad deal on my own than have terms rammed down my throat. The problem, of course, is that no one knows what these digital rights might be worth, so everyone is hedging their bets in their own favor (look at what Scholastic offers for digital rights versus other publishers) and the result, sadly, is that mistrust prevails. Let Google and anyone else who wants to do this begin by collecting those millions of books that are true orphans and truly out of copyright (let’s say books published 70 or more years ago); that could keep them busy for years, during which time they — and we — would see how these books are used, what their costs are, what fees are charged, etc. As for all of the remaining books, they should be able to conduct very thorough, time-consuming searches to find out who might still control the interests in them. The idea that I have to constantly monitor their business activity and inform them of their rights violations is a joke (and smacks of the 1950s scam where record companies sent people albums unsolicited and insisted they pay for them) and doesn’t suggest “honorable” intentions. Information is so readily available on the internet, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t do this routinely even now. They are Google after all.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    I see your point and much prefer the National Digital Library model to the Google Owns Everything model. There has been a lively debate on this though in response to Darnton’s article. As is usual, Google moved quickly and with deep pockets while Washington did nothing. So the reality is Google engaged in the process of digitizing millions of books, while no plan for a Public Digital Library were even on the table. Still I think the judge’s ruling gives us time to get off the Google express and decide what would be the best policy, not just the one that is so far ahead we have to call it the winner.

  3. I agree with you, Mark, and want to apologize for my grumpy response. Woke up at 5 AM to find snow falling (hey, it’s spring!!!) and haven’t recovered. Thank you for posting this; it’s important information for everyone involved. Maybe my problem is that I don’t want a national policy for my books; I’d rather slog forward on my own (with my wonderful agent’s help) whatever the outcome. One way to address some of my fears is to set an experation date to any agreement reached, say 5 years. This would limit (in terms of time) any ‘damages’ all sides feel and possibly minimize future legal issues (that is, once is ends, everyone negotiates for real). As for Google being out front, that’s great and to their credit, though I don’t feel it trumps my rights to manage and mismange the rights to my work.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    No offense taken — I like comments that have a bit of spunk and attitude.

  5. My problem with Google Books (well I have many including authors’ rights but…) – is the quality of the product. I downloaded a public domain ebook that Gutenberg didn’t have yet and the typos! It was very very hard to read. I think the Project Gutenberg distributed proofreaders do a great job.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Good point. Which again relates the bookmaking involved in much of the world of books for young readers — there is real care in many of the printed works we create — in editing, copyediting, design, production. That artisanal craft is not reflected in most e-products as they exist now. Adult readers for whom print is print are seeing something closer to their print choices in e-land.