The Google Book Settlement: Re-casting Publishing As We Know It?

The September 4th deadline to opt-out of the Google Book settlement is rapidly approaching, and most of my writer friends seem completely confused about what to do. Of course it’s mystifying: there are contradictory opinions everywhere. The Author’s Guild, which aims to represent the best interest of authors, promotes opting in without question (they brought the lawsuit and negotiated the deal); other organizations are rapidly coming out against it. What’s problematic is that all authors are automatically included in the settlement unless you specifically opt-out on the settlement website.

What also frightens me is that so many authors seem to know nothing about it and are not being advised by their agents what to do.

I’ve decided to opt-out. I’m represented by William Morris Endeavor, which is advising its clients to opt-out, and after reading about the settlement I’m even more convinced of its problematic long-reaching implications. Most problematic—even terrifying—of all is what Kenneth Crews, director of the Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office, had to say during a panel discussing the settlement in July, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly:

The discussion then took another potentially interesting twist, as Columbia University copyright expert Kenneth Crews attempted to re-frame the deal as a “revolution in publishing.” Crews suggested the deal could dramatically change the way books are accessed, bought, read, distributed and used. “If we are about to re-cast publishing, do we want to do so under these terms?” he asked. Petre, seizing the moment to rally for the deal said the quick answer was “yes,”—only to be interrupted by Drummond [Google’s Senior VP of Corporate Development] who said the answer was no—that is, no to Crews’ entire premise that the deal represented a revolution for books and publishing.

Let me reprint Crews’s question: “If we are about to re-cast publishing, do we want to do so under these terms?”

The precedent that this settlement will create is incredibly important to all writers, readers, librarians, publishers, and everyone who cares about the world of books. We owe it to ourselves to educate ourselves about it, and what it means for the future of books.

Pamela Samuelson, UC Berkeley Law Professor, critiqued the settlement in the Huffington Post: “Sorry, Kindle. The Google Book Search settlement will be, if approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern era. Exploiting an opportunity made possible by lawsuits brought by a small number of plaintiffs on one narrow issue, Google has negotiated a settlement agreement designed to give it a compulsory license to all books in copyright throughout the world forever. This settlement will transform the future of the book industry and of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books.”

For more information about these issues, here are some links:

The Google Book Settlement

For authors, how to opt-out

If you choose to opt out, you can still make your books available through the Google Books Partner Program

Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office’s opinion

National Writers Union advises opting out

ASJA advises opting out

AAR undecided on the issue

Author’s Guild settlement advice

Two more interesting quotes:

From another Publisher’s Weekly article:
“Say what you will of the Google Book Search settlement, one thing it is not is the path of least resistance. The solution to what began in 2005 as a simple copyright question is now a complex blueprint for an entirely new digital book business, a $125 million legal puzzle that involves a dizzying array of moving parts: thousands of authors, millions of titles and editions, libraries, public interest issues, murky copyright law, orphan works and even the creation of a new, central rights-granting authority in the U.S., the Book Rights Registry. One notable thing the settlement doesn’t do, however, is address the original claim in the suits—whether Google’s scanning of library books to create an online index is legal.”

William Morris Endeavor lawyer Eric Zohn’s opinion, quoted in the NY Times:
“Now they’ve got this license to sell your books at a pre-negotiated one-time royalty that you’re stuck with unless a court changes the settlement,” Eric Zohn, an attorney in business affairs at William Morris, said in an interview. “It’s like a legislative change. Under copyright law, you don’t have anything without express written consent from the copyright holder. Now the court is saying Google is free to sell your book unless you expressly tell them not to.”

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