Monday, October 19, 2015

Opinion: Adirondack Authors And Copyright

BooksImageJW01 500Google, the self-professed best friend of authors everywhere, won a recent landmark case that has redefined copyright law. Grab a book off your shelf and read the brief copyright notice, which says something like, “No part of this book may be reproduced without permission …,” and mentions a few exceptions. It’s official now: that copyright “claim” is a dinosaur and needs to be rewritten to accommodate new interpretations of the law. Google (and other companies) can legally copy entire, copyright-protected books. They’ve already admitted to doing it millions of times over. While they can’t legally sell your book, they can use parts of it to drive Internet traffic their way and earn income.

The use of your book by others is still limited by law, but the court has said authors are not intended as the primary beneficiary of copyright protection. That was a new one for me. I had hoped that paying the government to establish my copyright meant just that literally—that my full book could never be copied in any way without me giving someone that specific right. But that’s not at all true.

Here’s part of the court’s finding: “The ultimate goal of copyright is to expand public knowledge and understanding, which copyright seeks to achieve by giving potential creators exclusive control over copying of their works, thus giving them a financial incentive to create informative, intellectually enriching works for public consumption.”

Sounds great, but after referring to a snippet from the Constitution, this follows: “Thus, while authors are undoubtedly important intended beneficiaries of copyright, the ultimate, primary intended beneficiary is the public, whose access to knowledge copyright seeks to advance by providing rewards for authorship.”

It’s sort of like eminent domain for books. You know … your property is great, but we could put a nice hotel there and serve the greater good. By the same token, the book you envisioned, created, and earned a living from could serve the greater good if we let Google or someone else use it.

And the rewards for the author? The court agreed with Google that someone just might view a snippet at Google Books and suddenly decide to purchase that title … but I suggest you don’t rush out and open a new bank account for Google snippet income. The likelihood of snippet purchases happening with any frequency might be called “speculative possibility,” the very term used by the court to mock claims made by anti-Google attorneys (as you’ll see in the second paragraph below).

The court also addressed Google’s providing of digital copies to the libraries whose books were scanned. For the sake of definition, digital copies are two things: they are basically e-books, and they are the files used to produce printed copies. Should anyone gain access to a library’s files, they could easily offer the e-book versions for sale, or simply give them away, and could offer hard copies via print-on-demand services.

Here’s how that issue was addressed: “We recognize the additional possibility that the libraries might incur liability by negligent mishandling of, and failure to protect, their digital copies, leaving them unreasonably vulnerable to hacking. That also, however, is nothing more than a speculative possibility. There is no basis … to impose liability on Google … merely because of the speculative possibility that the library may fail to guard sufficiently against the dangers of hacking, as it is contractually obligated to do.”

The ability to hack a library “is nothing more than a speculative possibility”? Really? Credit card information, store records, government departments, health records, the White House, the Pentagon—as we’ve seen, everything gets hacked. If something hasn’t been hacked, it will be. But somehow they’re comfortable entrusting certain libraries with protecting several million titles still owned and being sold by authors to earn an income.

Looks like we do have a faith-based government after all, using “speculative possibility” to dismiss one argument, and using it again to support their own claim. Despite the rulings, I’m still a fan of Google Books—at least parts of it.

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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.


3 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I get the distinct sense you’ve never really given Google’s book collection a good look, and in fact this blog strikes me as being blatantly technophobic more than anything. Not that I’m one to blindly embrace technology in the belief that all progress is good, but as a self-published author of Adirondack books, I think Google’s scanning project is one of the best things to have happened to the internet.

    I have been using their digitized collection for a few years now to conduct historical research that otherwise could only be done in select libraries. Having access to hundreds of publications (books, government reports, magazine collections) from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has made the net a useful repository of source information, not just a collection of blogs and kitten memes.

    Books can be viewed on Google in one of three ways. Publications from before 1922 (those in the public domain because of expired copyrights) can be viewed in full, and even downloaded for free as PDF files. Some more recent books can be “previewed,” meaning that you can more or less view the book in its entirety on Google, but not download it. And then there are the “snippet” views, in which only a few lines of a copyrighted work can be seen at a time.

    The key advantage as I see it, as a consumer, is the ability to perform text searches. So rather than looking up specific titles that I think might discuss a particular subject as I would in a brick-and-mortar library, I can search for that subject (usually in the form of a few key words) and find actual text references by using Google. It brings me right to the page where my subject is referenced, rather than simply showing me a title of a book that may or may not be relevant. This allows me to find gems of historical information in sources I probably would have overlooked otherwise, and it is a method of searching that would be impossible with print-only copies.

    For instance, while searching for references on the Arietta Tannery in the southern Adirondacks last year, I found a report in a NYS Board of Health document printed in 1881. It provided a detailed account of a diphtheria outbreak that occurred in this hamlet the previous year, and it included a map of the settlement — the location of each household! — and quite a bit of insight into the lifestyles of Arietta’s residents. Who would think to look for the history of a tannery in a health department report? Other historians interested in Adirondack tanneries never came across it while digging through museum collections and state archives, but I found it while performing a Google search sitting on my couch.

    The public domain stuff that is available on Google is very impressive: old issues of Harper’s magazine, Forest and Stream magazine, various editions of the Edwin Wallace guidebooks, Verplanck Colvin’s reports, travelogues, and a host of state reports, including FF&G and Conservation Commission reports. Between Google’s book collection and the newspapers archived on the Fulton Postcards website and the NYS Historic Newspapers project, the best place to begin any historical research project is one’s laptop.

    Of course, the usefulness of Google’s book collection dries up a bit from 1922 forward, when the Mickey Mouse laws take effect. Even NYS reports, which I would assume have never been copyrighted, are not available. But I have discovered newer publications on Google that I later purchased, including Jeremy Davis’s “Lost Ski Areas of the Southern Adirondacks.” When I could see in Google’s preview that this book contained information that was useful to my own projects, I ordered a copy off of Amazon so that I wouldn’t be constrained by the limited viewing window.

    One of my own books can also be previewed on Google, meaning that anyone can read the book in its entirety for free and search for specific text references, if they are willing to do so through Google’s window. I assume the book was posted through the permission of the publisher; the copyright may be in my name, but the publisher calls the shots. That particular book is also available as an e-book, which I don’t think is coincidental. The books that I self-publish have never been available as e-books, and they cannot be previewed on Google, either.

    So assuming that Google continues to do what they have been doing, I am perfectly fine with it–and I wish they would increase the amount of publications that are in the public domain, including state Conservation Commission reports from 1922 onward. I admit I am not a lawyer, I have not analyzed the recent court ruling, and I can only speculate on the potential success of an appeal. But based on what I have seen I hardly think your hyperbole about the death of copyrights is realistic. If some distant megacorporation wants to plunder the profit potential of my books, the joke’s on them.

    By the act of “publishing” a work, the author is, to a degree, surrendering some control of what happens next. If the book is any good it will get passed around, quoted, photocopied. Copyright protection is not an absolute, and “fair use”–a key term in the Google case–is hardly a new concept. If an author is so precious with his own words that he feels the ordinary human can’t be trusted with them, then perhaps publishing is not the way to go.

    The danger, as I see it, is when the work gets separated from the author, a.k.a. plagiarism and piracy. Some blogger likes your work so much that he starts posting bits of it on his website as his own. Entire excerpts start appearing online. People are making digitized scans that can be copied infinitely. Vendors are selling unlicensed copies that I never got paid for. When that starts to happen I’ll be among the first to grab a pitchfork, light a torch, and join my local mob. But I just don’t see it here, in the Google case.

    The one threat that I do see rising from Google’s archiving project comes not to individual authors, but to brick-and-mortar research libraries. These facilities are expending tremendous resources to maintain physical copies of rare publications that can now be browsed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. On the one hand, this means less wear and tear on those old books, which could help their longevity. But it also means that people will be less dependent on the institutions that house them, causing people to forget that these places need to be supported and funded. This is the concern that I have been having as I avail myself of Google’s digital collection.

  2. Debra says:

    This was super interesting, Bill. Thank you.

    • Larry says:

      The assumption in your first sentence could not be more wrong. For years I have used Google Books on a daily basis. Technophobic? It would be difficult for anyone to spend more time using the latest technology than I do, seven days a week.
      It’s also not true that anything pre-1923 “can be viewed in full” on Google Books, as you claimed. There are plenty of publications that for some unknown Google reason still feature only snippet view. Documents from 1876 and 1914 that I just checked allow only snippet view … BUT you CAN click on the “Get Print Book” button and purchase a copy from Amazon for $13.99. They’re printing that book from the digital copy they made, but won’t allow public view of the digital copy. So much for a service to the public.
      You’re naïve if you think your self-published print book can’t become an e-book without your permission. That’s exactly what Google has done with some of my books. If your self-published book is in one of the libraries they worked with, they made your book an e-book and gave a copy to the library. And if they can do that on a large scale, good luck stopping smaller companies from doing the same thing in the future.
      You missed the point on Fair Use. Every writer employs Fair Use at one time or another. What’s different is that copying an entire book cover to cover was never considered Fair Use. Google decided to do it, and when they went to court, they showed what a fantastic thing they could create if they could just be allowed to redefine Fair Use. The judge’s euphoria over the word transformational clinched it.
      As for Google Books generating sales for authors … well, sometimes. In my case, the link will send you to Amazon, which doesn’t have my books. The value to Amazon, as any store owner can tell you, is that another customer just entered their door, and a percentage of such customers always make impulse purchases, which are of no benefit to the author whose book sent them there in the first place. When you’re as big as Google and Amazon are, that represents a significant income.

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