The Google Book Settlement

I’ve been reading a little bit about the Google Book Settlement, primarily because Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors.  She has made waves recently by being the ringleader of a prominent group of authors opposed to the settlement, and who have either withdrawn or condemned the Authors’ Guild for its involvement in the settlement plan.

However, I am really struggling to figure out what I think about the settlement.  Part of me is with LeGuin — she is right to be concerned that the settlement wrests control of her work away from her and gives it to a corporation, allowing it to enrich itself without paying her fairly for its appropriation of her content.  This is a very real concern, and we already have enough “indentured servitude” outfits out there — youtube, for example — that make money on other people’s work and creative products.

But at the same time, I find it hard to square LeGuin’s opposition with many of the more philosophical works she has written on human solidarity, sharing and becoming detached from notions of possession and deserving, and building a world in which individual cultural products serve the good of everyone.  Let me be plain: if I had written The Dispossessed, I would be pissed as hell if I wasn’t making money off of a work of singular genius.  But I would also struggle equally with the fact that I feel the ideas of The Dispossessed are far too valuable to put a price on their circulation.

Because I also agree to an extent with people who want to decentralize notions of copyright — namely, that cultural production should generally be freed in the service of cultural impact.

But I would say — it does seem unfair for Google to make money in perpetuity from advertisements on other people’s works without paying the authors a portion of the ad revenue.  So in a sense, I don’t quite get the full complications of the settlement.

A good article on the issue, by the way, is at io9.

3 comments on “The Google Book Settlement

  1. Game says:

    Interesting article, thanks for sharing.

  2. I haven’t read the io9 article yet, but I should. Honestly, on this issue, I think I side more with LeGuin but with some qualifications. I think it’s good for people to have easy access to books. However, I don’t think a corporation (especially a bunch of hipster crusaders who think they are saving the world and can do no wrong) deserve to be the gatekeeper here–considering that they’re drawing money from someone else’s product by sitting on it. The way people start a new business these days is by figuring out a way to profit off something that already exists as the product of someone else’s efforts.

    Ultimately, I agree with your points about ownership but I don’t think that Google can be seen in any way at all to be furthering such an ideal. Writers may need to learn to let go of what they write, but NOT so some corporation can make money/seem cool. That’s why I think Creative Commons licenses are a good idea. Obviously that can’t be applied universally and they don’t really go far enough, but I think it’s a place for concerned writers to start convincing others.

    Also, for what it’s worth, LeGuin has said she doesn’t feel like she can be an anarchist because she’s married and lives in a nice house (but I still don’t believe her.) When she talks about having written an anarchist utopia, she talks about it almost as if it was a gift to anarchists from an outsider–referring to anarchists as “they/them,” not “we.” It is kind of sad.

    • tolkienista says:

      Yeah, I tend to be more on LeGuin’s side on the specifics you mention, with some reservations that come from ideological commitments to some of the more free-copyright stances I tend to support.

      I’d almost prefer that the answer be that if Google really wanted to save the world, they should allow writers to opt-out of having their books displayed along with advertisements — as well as Google’s tracking of what its users are reading. It seems like that’s actually the more magnanimous solution — provide books for free viewing online, ad-free, no official tracking of what’s being read. Other than that, it seems to me the only equitable solution is a sharing of ad revenue with authors.

      One way in which libraries have worked without overmuch copyright regulation has been because to actually “take” something in a library for your own you have to go through some hurdles of time and effort. Copy machines, legwork, getting to the library — and if you’re unscrupulous, stealing a book or something — all take time and effort and sometimes have penalties. Digitization makes it so easy. It seems that a way to cool the fires would be for google to build in ways that support shutting down easy printing and easy downloading of books — requiring, for instance, purchase to use in printable and portable formats, but allowing online viewing for other ways of pursuing the issue.

      As to LeGuin being married as a disqualifier — well, balderdash. She dedicated her book “to the partner.” There’s something profound in that!

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