Not at the Writers’ Expense

By Nick Taylor Saturday, October 22, 2005; A21

I am a writer.

For some time now — too much time, I suspect my editor believes — I have been working on a history of the Works Progress Administration. This has taken me to states from Maine to California, into archives and libraries, and on long and occasionally fruitful searches for survivors of the Depression-era program.

I have invested a small fortune in books chronicling the period and copies of old newspapers, spent countless hours on Internet searches, paid assistants to dig up obscure bits of information, and then sat at my keyboard trying to spin a mountain of facts into a compelling narrative. Money advanced by my publisher has made this possible.

Except for a few big-name authors, publishers roll the dice and hope that a book’s sales will return their investment. Because of this, readers have a wealth of wonderful books to choose from. Most authors do not live high on their advances; my hourly return at this point is laughable.

Only if my book sells well enough to earn back its advance will I make additional money, but the law of copyright assures me of ongoing ownership. With luck, income will flow to my publisher and me for a long time, but if my publisher loses interest, I will still own my book and be able to make money from it.

So my question is this: When did we in this country decide that this kind of work and investment isn’t worth paying for?

That is what Google, the powerful and extremely wealthy search engine, with co-founders ranking among the 20 richest people in the world, is saying by declining to license in-copyright works in its library scanning program, which has the otherwise admirable aim of making the world’s books available for search by anyone with Web access.

Google says writers and publishers should be happy about this: It will increase their exposure and maybe lead to more book sales.

That’s a devil’s bargain.

We’d all like to have more exposure, obviously. But is that the only form of compensation Google can come up with when it makes huge profits on the ads it sells along the channels its users are compelled to navigate?

Now that the Authors Guild has objected, in the form of a lawsuit, to Google’s appropriation of our books, we’re getting heat for standing in the way of progress, again for thoughtlessly wanting to be paid. It’s been tradition in this country to believe in property rights. When did we decide that socialism was the way to run the Internet?

The New York Public Library and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, two of the five libraries in the Google program, have recognized the problem. They are limiting the books scanned from their collections to those in the public domain, on which copyright protections have expired.

That is not the case with the others — the libraries of the University of Michigan, Harvard and Stanford. Michigan’s librarian believes that the authors’ insistence on their rights amounts to speed bumps in the road of progress. “We cannot lose sight of the tremendous benefits this project will bring to society,” he said in a news release.

In other words, traffic is moving too slowly, so let’s remove the stop signs.

Google contends that the portions of books it will make available to searchers amount to “fair use,” the provision under copyright that allows limited use of protected works without seeking permission. That makes a private company, which is profiting from the access it provides, the arbiter of a legal concept it has no right to interpret. And they’re scanning the entire books, with who knows what result in the future.

There is no argument about the ultimate purpose of Google’s initiative. Great value lies in a searchable, online “library at Alexandria” containing all the world’s books, at least to that fraction of society that has computers, the electricity to run them and Internet connections. It would make human knowledge available on an unprecedented scale. But it must be done correctly, by acquiring the rights to the resources it wishes to exploit.

The value of Google’s project notwithstanding, society has traditionally seen its greatest value in the rights of individuals, and particularly in the dignity of their work and just compensation for it.

The people who cry that information wants to be free don’t address this dignity or this aspect of justice. They’re more interested in ease of assembly. The alphabet ought to be free, most certainly, but the people who painstakingly arrange it into books deserve to be paid for their work. This, at the core, is what copyright is all about. It’s about a just return for work and the dignity that goes with it.

The writer is president of the Authors Guild and is the author of nonfiction books.

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