Monday, October 15, 2012

Commentary: Lawrence Gooley On Google Books

Remember Napster and the legal cases against individuals who used it to obtain copies of songs without paying for them? Citizens were pursued relentlessly by huge companies and eventually made an example of in court, getting hit by fines in the thousands of dollars. I’m not defending what those individuals did, but when the shoe is on the other foot, it’s an entirely different story. A large company has been brazenly stealing from thousands of citizens, and they may well get away with it.

In this case, instead of music, it’s books, and instead of citizens, it’s a gigantic company, Google, that has completely ignored longstanding law and violated the rights of thousands. On their own, they redefined US copyright law in order to suit their business plan, copying millions of books without bothering to seek authors’ permission.

The difference? Google has unlimited funds to pour into attorneys’ pockets, and people like me don’t, so there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be allowed to skate on this one if a very recent announcement is any indication. In fact, if the Department of Justice had not rejected the settlement proposed in 2011, Google would have won the right to copy and print ANY book by ANY author (because it was a class-action suit, the ruling would have applied to books by ALL authors, past and present).

I’m a daily Google user and have at times availed myself of their advertising capabilities. I’m also a Google victim, and it’s impossible to avoid outrage or a “WTF” feeling (I mean “fudge,” of course) to find MY book―my property, as legally defined by federal statute―taken by them.

At least they were kind enough to actually publish accompanying information, detailing when they stole my property and who offered it to them in the first place. You can find that information online, right beside a copy of the page I autographed. Scroll down a bit to see where they obtained the book. They didn’t buy it from me.

You see, Google has thus far stolen two of my books because one of their “partners,” the University of Wisconsin–Madison, agreed to allow Google access to the contents of their library for the purpose of scanning all of their books. Included were materials of the Wisconsin Historical Society. In the past, the WHS had purchased two of my titles, so my books were included in this clearly illegal arrangement. (Just like I can’t give doctors permission to operate on your child, a library can’t give someone permission to copy my work.)

On their website, the university promises no copyright infringement, but that’s an outright lie. Their statement is based on Google’s own interpretation of copyright law, which holds that they can do pretty much whatever they want in order to pursue the Mass Digitization Project. Here’s a direct quote: “Google’s primary mission is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ … The result of the project will be to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual catalog of all books in all languages.”

They haven’t yet shared the content of my books, but will they? Well, it sure seems unlikely that they went to all the trouble and expense to scan books they don’t want for something.

But because Google is so huge, and because they have plans to dominate the world of knowledge by copying every book ever written and making them available to the public, they simply ignored US law and did it, beginning in 2004 (they have since copied more than 20 million titles).

What they did was wrong for many reasons, but primarily, they clearly violated the Fair Use clause of copyright law, which allows minimal use of a book’s passages. The following paragraph contains excerpts from the copyright office website, specifying what may be done.

“Examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; by a library … to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; and in legislative or judicial proceedings.”

Those snippets cover the gamut, and they’re quite specific. But to complement the near certainty that works are protected, authors register their books with the US copyright office, paying $35 to $50 to do so, and supplying the government with two free copies of each book (and paying to package and ship them as well).

Finally, to cement the definition of what is allowed, a copyright notice appears on the official copyright page of each book, normally beginning with the following words: “All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission of the author” (or publisher).

Do you see any ambiguity in the process? I sure don’t, but Google identified several devious paths to profit, so they simply ignored the law, which triggered outrage, followed by legal action. But a few weeks ago, seven years after filing a lawsuit against the company for copying all those books, the Association of American Publishers settled with Google. Details of the settlement are being kept secret, but that may change because three other organizations of journalists, authors, and writers have asked the Justice Department to review the settlement and reveal the terms.

Why? Because in some cases, publishers are ignoring authors’ rights, and it will result in the illegal sale of copyrighted works with no input by, and no compensation to, the authors.

And all this because Google suddenly decided that copyright law didn’t apply to them. They also have the resources to lawyer anyone into capitulation. Even better, they began the massive book-copying endeavor as an opt-out program, which means that they copied my book because I didn’t contact them and tell them NOT to do it.

Silly me …  I thought that’s what the copyright notice was for, printed as always on the copyright page. Instead, the onus was supposedly on me to stop them from acting illegally against me. That kind of thinking is downright diabolical.

But when you’re big like Google, you often help write the laws that govern what you do, and Google apparently found US copyright law to be interfering with their ability to take people’s stuff and generate profit from doing so. They are rewriting copyright law by concocting self-serving interpretations of it.

By one of Google’s copyright definitions, if a book is not available commercially, it loses copyright protection and is theirs to print. So, if one of my books is sold out and I have plans to reprint it in six months or a year (which has happened frequently), it will be temporarily off the market. During that commercial lapse, Google says they can scan it or print it and it is no longer my property.

The specifically stated goal of all this? A “nationally digitized library,” which means that every book in every library will be available electronically. Lost within that concept is one very important question: who will bother to write books if a single purchase by a network library makes a book available to millions at the push of a button from any computer keyboard?

And what if you want a printed copy? No problem. More than 100,000 “instant-print” stations will have the capability to print a copy within three minutes (for a small fee). A future concept? Hardly. They already exist, and a plan is in place. If current books are added to that system, what is the future of bookstores? Authors?

Searching for my titles under Google Books yields remarkable results. For two of them, Google defines where and when they copied my book. Then, adding insult to injury, they direct you to perhaps 2 to 5 vendors where you can purchase it, all the while knowing full well that those vendors don’t carry my books. In fact, the books are only available from my online store, and my store is often not even listed among the choices.

Why is that of value to Google? Because every store owner knows that the first key to retailing success is getting customers into your store, which opens the possibility of impulse purchases. Rather than send you to my store, they send you to stores who pay for Google advertising, but who do not have the product you’re looking for. It’s intentionally misleading, a perfect example of the old bait and switch.

It’s always about money, and this is no different. Google sees great riches in owning the world’s literature, and who’s going to stop them?

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Curt Austin says:

    Google exemplifies the attitude of the Napster generation, that “information wants to be free”. It is similar to idealistic notions of property ownership – aka communism – directed instead at intellectual property. Except it is not so idealistic – the “have nots” for this abstract form of property greatly outnumber the “haves” and possess the technical means of getting valuable stuff for nothing. Guilty feelings, if they exist at all, are easily rationalized – “I wasn’t going to buy it anyway”, etc.

    It is certainly disturbing that a major outfit like Google is encouraging this attitude in our culture. And our elected representatives – have-nots themselves in the creative realm – are letting it happen (except when money is involved – Google probably steers clear of Mickey Mouse, while Disney has congress in its pocket).

    I don’t know the solution to this problem, but it is probably important for us “haves” (I’m a photographer) to be sensitive to the “have-nots”. We should support steps to reduce the appearance of exploitation. As a practical matter, the “have-nots” are in control of laws and enforcement of I.P. rights. These are not quite “inalienable” rights – a democratic society can set the terms any way it likes.

    But it’s working out pretty well for the “information wants to be free” crowd. There is a huge amount of free creative stuff available – look no further than the Adirondack Almanack. It may be that creative folks should stop doing this – we’re flooding the market with cheap goods. Insist on being paid, if you want to call yourself a professional, even if only a token amount! Realistically, things are only going to get worse – if you are planning to live off some creative talent, pick a field where you can expect (not hope) to get paying customers, if not an actual job.

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