Conversation: Perspective on Google Books from Authors Guild Member James Gleick

BY Arts Desk  March 12, 2010 at 2:04 PM EST

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In 2005, the Authors Guild brought a lawsuit against Google for digitally scanning books without permission of the books’ authors. In November 2009, a court approved an amended settlement between the Guild and Google that gives authors the option of opting out.

James Gleick, a writer and member of the Authors Guild who was involved in negotiating the terms of the settlement says, “It puts an end to the idea that you can just scan books freely without the permission of authors.”

But some writers are not convinced that the settlement goes far enough. “I’ve been surprised that some authors, even now, are afraid of the settlement, because so much work went into making sure that the rights of authors were respected and preserved…” says Gleick.

Gleick is the author of several books about science, including the bestselling “Chaos: Making a New Science,” which was re-published in 2008 for its 20th anniversary.

I spoke with him by phone about the terms of the Google Books settlement and the various debates surrounding the deal:

Transcript is after the jump.

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Brown talked to former Guild member Ursula Le Guin, who resigned her membership over the Google Books settlement. You can find their conversation here. And for an explanation of the Google Books project, watch Spencer Michels’ NewsHour segment from late last year.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: James Gleick, hello.

JAMES GLEICK: Hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were involved in the negotiations over this Google agreement. What’s the key thing that the agreement accomplishes, do you think?

JAMES GLEICK: There are two kinds of key things. The key thing is a technical thing; it settles a lawsuit. The lawsuit was brought by us, began with the Authors Guild, as representatives of the entire class of authors whose rights were being infringed by this gigantic, wholesale copying of books by Google. That’s the point of the settlement, is to settle the lawsuit in a way that’s fair to everybody and protects the rights of authors. But at the same time, and I don’t think this was expected, it creates a landmark new service of value to the world that is almost an approximation of a great online digital library. It goes beyond what Google was trying to do in the first place, and it certainly goes beyond what we imagined when we sued Google. It’s a side effect of the settlement, and I just think it’s great for everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s take it in two parts. First, the protection of authors, because this has had some authors — I talked to Ursula Le Guin recently and she — it was a fear that this is a kind of end run around copyright law, that authors would not be protected. Explain how you think this helps authors?

JAMES GLEICK: Authors are entirely protected. I know there is some confusion about it, and I’ve been surprised that some authors even now are afraid of the settlement, because so much work went into making sure that the rights of authors were respected and preserved under the terms of the settlement. It’s the opposite of an end run around copyright law. It’s a victory. Well, I’m not supposed to say victory because it’s a settlement. Google didn’t lose, but we got what we wanted, which is first of all a recognition of copyright. Google was scanning all of these books as though they had a right to do that, to make their own digital copies of all of the books in the world for their own commercial purposes. That was wrong. The settlement — it doesn’t announce that it was wrong — but it puts an end to the idea that you can just scan books freely without the permission of authors. So it upholds copyright law. And then in the details, every author who is a part of the settlement has the absolute right at any time, now and in the future, to tell Google what they may and may not do in the way of displaying their books. An author who remains in the settlement — and there is confusion about this — is only in the settlement and then his or her rights are completely protected. You can then say, well, Google, you know, I’m in the settlement and under the terms of the settlement, I don’t want you displaying any part of my book ever. And Google has to honor that. Or you can just let Google go ahead and allow searching and display of small parts of the book, and you can allow if you want Google to display their little discreet advertisements with the book, and if they get any revenue from that they have to share it 70 percent with the author and 30 percent that they keep as a return on their investment in scanning the books. I think it’s all very fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is also been, of course, I guess, a more general sense or some worry that this is too much power in the hands of one private company. Even if it’s one with that motto of “don’t be evil,” that could change, you know, if the agreement is non-exclusive, because as a practical matter it could be hard for other companies to compete.

JAMES GLEICK: I sympathized with that feeling very much. Again, from the point of view of someone who started in this as Google’s antagonist, we hated their copyright grab, and there are a lot of people, there are a lot of respected academics, who step back from the settlement and say, look, this isn’t the right way to go about this. If you want to create a vast digital library, have the government do it, have the Library of Congress do it, or have some nonprofit organization of scholars do it, and do it right, and why should a private company profit, and that’s fine. If we lived in a utopia, we could dream in that way, but unfortunately in the real world there is no way to get from point A, where we are now, to point B, the wonderful future that we can all imagine.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was in this interesting exchange recently in the New York Review of Books, right, with the Authors Guild letter in response to an article by John Darnton. I wrote the quote here: “The Google settlement should not be weighed against these dreamy alternative futures.”

JAMES GLEICK: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Darnton responded, saying essentially, why not embrace a kind of utopian stance of the kind that motivated the Enlightenment, motivated the Founding Fathers?

JAMES GLEICK: And that’s fine. I respect Robert Darnton’s position on that intellectually. But we’re faced with a specific problem here, which is a company that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars digitizing books and has these scans — we feel, illegal scans sitting on their servers — and they’re sharing them with libraries, and what are you going to do with them? In the meantime, you can say, well, it’d be better to just make them throw them out, or you could say — and I think Robert Darnton suggested this — wouldn’t it be great if Google, in a public minded spirit, would turn them over to the government or to the Library of Congress. Well, that’s not happening. And the fact is, like it or not, no one else has been willing to date to make the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in digitizing these books. The government of the United States, as an efficient and fast moving as it may seem in other matters, has not moved very quickly on this front and nor have European governments and nor have other companies like Microsoft and Amazon, all of whom talked about getting into this business. The fact is Google spent the money, and yes, they have a big competitive advantage, not a monopoly certainly. The reason they have this competitive advantage is they made a big investment and it’s very reasonable, it’s honorable to worry as Robert Darnton, and Ursula Le Guin and others have done about the prospect of a big private company someday having too much power over the market place or invading our privacy, and if and when that happens we as consumers and the government as regulators need to step in. But I don’t see any evidence that’s happening so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you even, I guess, a larger vision of the future. I’m thinking of an op-ed that you wrote in the Times a little ways back where you talked about the book. You said the book is a technology that works, so it survives on those grounds even — if I understand what you are saying right — even as the whole world of publishing and the distribution of literature, fiction, nonfiction, all that will change, but the book is a technology that works.

JAMES GLEICK: Well, that’s what I hope and pray, anyway. Maybe because I’m old enough or maybe because I’m still writing them, I believe in the old fashioned book as thing originally printed between hardcovers on paper with ink, and it has physical heft. And it can be a beautiful object, and it works in a sense that for centuries it has been the best way of preserving our culture and passing it on from generation to generation. And at this moment in time, it’s not the fastest way to disseminate information and it’s not maybe the way most people read information from morning till night. I mean, personally I spend most of my day in front of a computer screen, but I still believe in it. All the more reason to love this settlement, I think, because the fact is the settlement, and most people have missed this point, is really about out-of-print books. It doesn’t affect in print books, because Google can’t do anything with those under the settlement unless both the publisher and the authors tell them to. The vast world of out-of-print books, magnificent as it is, is out of our reach most of the time. Unless we are lucky enough to be at a big university or within shooting distance of a big city library and are able to find those books on the shelves, out-of-print books are mostly lost to people in their day-to-day lives. There is no commercial market for them. And so this settlement, taking all of these out of print books and making it possible not only to find them but to view major portions of them online, in many cases free of charge, in other cases for a modest cost, I think it’s a great transformation in the world of reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, James Gleick, thanks so much for talking to us.

JAMES GLEICK: All right, it’s my pleasure.