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This fall a federal judge’s ruling on a lawsuit against Google, the Internet search giant, could drastically shape the future of books and everyone associated with them – publishers, booksellers, libraries, readers and writers.
And at least one organization of writers, the National Writers Union (a UAW local), is worried about what that future could look like.
The Google case is another chapter in the unfolding story of what happens when traditional cultural forms can be digitized. It started in 2004, when Google reached an agreement with five major research libraries to copy all of their books, then make them available to search and read to different degrees on the internet. Google portrayed its grand universal library project as permissible under copyright law’s exception for copying for “fair use.”
Various individuals and groups, including the American Association of Publishers and the Authors Guild, sued, claiming Google’s project violates copyright law. The suits were consolidated in 2005.
Last October, lawyers for Google and the plaintiffs submitted an agreement that would give Google exclusive rights to digitally publish “orphan” books — books still in copyright but out-of-print — if copyright owners did not opt out. The agreement would establish a “Books Rights Registry” to govern rights for authors, publishers and others, and it provided $125 million (about $45 million for writers) to compensate for copyright violations.
The National Writers Union has fought for writers’ digital rights previously. In 2000 it won a case – New York Times v. Tasini – in which the Supreme Court ruled that writers did not implicitly give up electronic republishing rights when they sold articles.
Although NWU has not yet decided whether to formally file objections to the settlement by the Sept. 4 deadline, last week it announced objections to how the agreement treats writers — and readers.
Union president Larry Goldbetter says the deal “gives Google monopolistic control over access to many previously published copyrighted books and materials, and allows Google to collect and sell information about the reading habits of individuals.”
NWU objects to the minimal payments to writers, the grant of rights to Google unless authors opt out, and how the deal forces writers into “an unfair binding arbitration process” case-by-case, without the possibility of collective negotiation.
Edward Hasbrouck, co-chair of the NWU book division, objects to the proposed settlement’s assumption that publishers and writers share the same interest when “from the beginning there’s a conflict between writers as workers and employers: Who could own and get income from publication in electronic form?”
Although Google claims simply to be continuing its quest to organize knowledge and enable everyone to search it, Hasbrouck says, “This is about a corporation trying to make money off libraries of books for which they paid nothing.”
Not only would Google establish a monopoly — an issue the Department of Justice may raise in court, Hasbrouck says — by granting Google rights unless writers opt out, but the agreement “turns copyright on its head.”
And by making the settlement last for the life of existing copyrights, the privately negotiated deal sets the legal framework far into the future, usurping the role that Congress should fulfill.
Hasbrouck argues the deal not only intervenes in the relationship of writers and publishers but also limits authors’ rights as individuals and as potential collectivities in bargaining.
Readers have reason to worry as well about Google’s ability to track their reading habits and sell that information.
While the potential benefits of a global digital library may be huge – just like the potential profit and power for Google — the Google deal has too many flaws, including infringements of rights of writers and readers, to set the rules for a new era of digital books.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.