Books in Limbo

BY JAMES SHAPIRO

This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post August 19, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Much has been written of late about the Google Book Settlement, mostly about issues of copyright, monopoly and privacy. The tone has become increasingly nasty and the turn to scare tactics familiar to anyone following the health care debate. Lost in these broadsides and in the papers filed in the U. S. District Court that will soon rule on the case is the view from the trenches: What effect will the proposed settlement (or its derailment) have on students and scholarship?

Ask anyone how undergraduates go about researching papers these days and you’ll hear the same thing: They surf the Internet. The good ones quickly move beyond Wikipedia and consult the thousands of scholarly books and articles now easily accessible with a click. Going to the library or bookstore and lugging home a treasure-trove of books — one of the great pleasures of my life — holds less appeal for those I teach. They don’t have the time. It’s not how they are used to finding out about things. And with library acquisition budgets slashed, the books they seek are all too often only available through time-consuming interlibrary loans.

Happily, a lot of scholarly books are already accessible online, though nearly all of them were published either before 1924 (and are therefore in the public domain) or after 2000 or so, when academic publishers began making some books accessible in digital form. For a student researching a paper, most books published in the interim remain invisible and might as well not exist. Put another way, it’s easier for students to call up electronic copies of even the most obscure works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries than it is for them to get hold of important scholarly books on Elizabethan literature published only a decade ago. The intellectual labor of several generations of scholars across the disciplines is in danger of being, by default, condemned to limbo.

I’m the author of one of those books in limbo, Rival Playwrights, published in 1991 in hardcover by Columbia University Press and priced at $35. It has sold around a thousand copies and never appeared in paperback or electronic form. Technically, it is still in print but you wouldn’t be able to order a new copy on Amazon.com, find it at a B&N superstore, or download it onto your Kindle (though if you are desperate, I’m told that a used copy can be picked up for $248, plus shipping, from Canada). You can also check it out of the library — if, that is, you have borrowing privileges at a leading college or university.

That situation is about to change. It’s estimated that Google is spending upwards of a half-billion dollars in an effort to scan all the books — as many as 20 million — located in top research libraries. Google ran into trouble, though, when, without permission, it scanned books like mine that were still under copyright. The Authors Guild stepped in and sued. After extended negotiations a settlement was reached, one that protects the rights of publishers and authors through a Book Rights Registry while rewarding Google’s investment (the settlement also allows copyright holders to exclude their books or make only parts of them available). I don’t ever expect to make much in royalties from my book, but I feel good about the prospect of seeing it in wider circulation. And I’m cheered that my publishers stand to profit from the settlement and have already made snippets of my book and many others like it available through Google Book Search. Friends and colleagues with whom I have spoken — and I suspect many thousands of academic authors with books in limbo — feel the same way. When you spend a decade or longer writing a book that contributes to the conversation in your field you want the next generation to read it.

One of the arguments made against the Google Book Settlement is that it rides roughshod over the legal rights of “orphaned” books — the technical term for titles still in copyright whose owners cannot be found. It’s a threat that is considerably overstated (those in the business of hunting down copyright holders of orphaned books estimate that about 80-85% can be located). Orphaned books need to be acknowledged, but so too do books in limbo, whose intellectual importance has been all but ignored in debates about the settlement. And of course every orphaned book is currently in limbo.

If the settlement is approved it’s not only those affiliated with colleges and universities who will gain access to all these books. The settlement requires Google to make available at a terminal in each of 16,500 public libraries copies of every single scanned out-of-print book (except for those that authors or publishers choose to not display). Anyone can read them there for free. Access to knowledge will no longer be a function of privilege, as millions of citizens can consult a general collection that surpasses those found in the best Ivy League universities. Those who want to purchase copies will also be able to do so — with writers and their publishers receiving the lion’s share of these payments. All this should also enable university libraries to redirect resources toward acquiring and maintaining unique archives such as manuscript collections as well as cultural artifacts that can’t be scanned.

Would I prefer that research universities had dipped into their deep endowments and done this collectively before Google acted? Sure, but that was always a fantasy and those endowments have now dried up. Will the settlement bring back the scholarly book? I don’t know, but I’m betting that it will at least stem the rising tide of wiki-based research. Will we live to see the day when students store favorite books on their laptops much as they collect music on their iPods? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on the consequences if those trying to block this settlement have their way. Who knows how many more years all that scholarship will be condemned to limbo.

James Shapiro is Professor of English at Columbia University and a member of the Authors Guild Council. His next book — Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? — will be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2010.

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