Why I Opted Out Of The Google Books Settlement - InformationWeek

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9/2/2009
11:14 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Why I Opted Out Of The Google Books Settlement

After long and careful consideration, and with a deadline looming, I chose to opt out of the Google Books settlement. Sorry, Google, this time you were evil.

After long and careful consideration, and with a deadline looming, I chose to opt out of the Google Books settlement. Sorry, Google, this time you were evil.

A while back I received a notice in the mail that I was eligible to participate in the Google Books settlement. I'm eligible because I've written a number of things in print -- chapters for technical books, and also my own fiction which I've published through my own imprints. I wasn't sure about what to do at the time, and I had a few weeks to think about it, so I put it aside and concentrated on other things.

Then a number of people I know, also in the same predicament, mentioned that they'd chosen to opt out of the settlement and preserve their rights rather than opt in or do nothing. These were people with far more to lose than me. They would have had to go through a terrible hassle to prove they owned things which, in the eyes of the law, they already owned. This included people who had contributed to dozens of anthologies over the course of as many years, and were essentially being asked to prove ownership of all that material all over again. It wasn't research they should have been doing in the first place, and so they resented the principle of the whole thing.

As well they should. And as I read on, I realized something else. I might not stand to lose much now; I might even make a few cents. But is that worth signing away any future chance of being able to do the better thing? Especially if Google decides to do something entirely different in the future, one that favors authors even less?

As far as the technical works go, I doubt any more money could be made from them no matter what happened. Any possible royalties were already spent or used up. I also don't know if I have any say over what happens to those books, though, because they were works for hire -- I don't retain the use of that material. (And even if I did, the chances of it getting any kind of readership today are probably zero.)

But my own books are another story. There, I put my foot down.

I do not like the idea of Google assuming it knows what's best for me as an author. In fact, I'm not sure I like the idea of it assuming its knows what's best for me as a reader, either. Digitizing works that are clearly of historic value or indisputably in the public domain -- that's one thing. I've benefited from having that, I can't deny it.

But Google should not touch work which stands a chance of being put back into print and garnishing even some money for the author's estate. Not without having gotten in touch with the copyright owners, or making an overture to such people as a whole. And figuring out which works fall into what bucket is their responsibility, not ours.

What I object most to is the way Google decided to simply make things happen, and assume everyone would have the same Vision Thing they did.  As someone else put it:

For deep pocketed companies, it will almost always be cheaper to litigate or settle after the fact than to license up front, given that the majority of authors won't have the wherewithal to pursue copyright cases against well-funded studio or corporate legal teams.

Even more chilling is this thought: maybe that's the only way they can operate. Perhaps this is how companies like Google are doomed to behave. They're too big to function in such a fine-grained way, too sprawling and unaware of what any one hand of theirs is doing. They have no choice but to be this monolithic, because everything else is just too slow.

What I also object to is being seen as either a consumer or a producer, but not both at once. I resent the idea that I can only bring one set of standards to the table at a time, that I have to either be someone who wants everything for free or nothing for free. I would have been more than happy to allow Google to make controlled excerpts of my work if they had just asked nicely or made it possible to do so without this cumbersome legal nonsense.

Now for the open source part of this discussion.

When people talk unironically about open content, they mean one of two things: work which is unambiguously in the public domain (which in itself is getting that much harder to defend), and work created specifically to be released as open content albeit with certain good-faith restrictions (e.g., Flat World Knowledge). They don't mean work which has been used as if it were open content for so long that we might as well all act as if it is.

I fear that's exactly what's happening -- that any more nuanced understanding of the issue is getting gobbled up by a general sense of futility. Oh, it's all just bunches of bits now; everything's getting digitized; why fight it? We might even make some money that way. All content is now open content, in a practical sense.

But it's not about money. It's about retaining control over one's work, and about not having one's work reused in unwanted contexts, which no amount of cash can fix after the fact. I don't think even Google fully understands the unintended consequences of all this, and I haven't seen anything that shows they do. And that makes this genuinely dangerous behavior, not just "evil".

I'll leave the last word to Harlan Ellison, another author who fought against the illegal digital redistribution of his work and won. "One can get one's own head chopped off, but that doesn't mean you have to aid and abet the axman."

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