Copyright debate on the day for the Google Settlement deadline

I know the Google Settlement is a hotly contentious issue which is vitally important to authors and probably of zero interest to most others.  But in fact it is going to introduce a whole new dimension for readers as well – especially those in the USA.

Today one of main UK radio news programme carried an item in which two novelists, Maureen Duffy and Nick Harkaway, discussed the pros and cons of staying in the Settlement (which will come before a court early next year) or opting out of the scheme which will allow Google to make all books published before 5 January 2009 available in electronic form from their website in the USA.

This is all rather irrelevant to me unfortunately as I assigned the copyright for most of my non-fiction translations to the publishers but, generally speaking, it has been broadly welcomed by publishers and authors’ societies.  In financial terms, the Settlement will provide rights holders (i.e. authors or anyone holding copyright to the printed text) with a “retrospective fee for Google having digitized the works, and potential royalties for specified future uses of those pre-January 2009 works in the USA”.

As Nick Harkaway – who has bravely opted out of the Settlement on principle – rightly points out, this is a “reshaping of the copyright landscape on which we all depend”.   The Google Settlement covers millions of books – many of which are European, in particular those that are out of copyright (the so-called “orphan copyright” works) – and it affects who will own the right to access them in the future. “We’re talking about the cultural history of the past hundred years or more and who will own it in the future”.

For curiosity sake, I looked at Google books and here is their triumphant statement: Google has reached a groundbreaking agreement with authors and publishers. (click on the link – it should take you to the page setting out the changes that will be introduced).

Further into their website, there is this statement by Sergey Brin:

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Today, together with the authors, publishers, and libraries, we have been able to make a great leap in this endeavor […]  While this agreement is a real win-win for all of us, the real victors are all the readers. The tremendous wealth of knowledge that lies within the books of the world will now be at their fingertips.”

We hope and expect that this leap forward with our friends and partners in the publishing industry is just the first of many. We love books at Google, and our fondest dream is that Book Search will evolve into a service that ensures that books, along with their authors and publishers, will flourish for many years into the future.

On the face of it this is great, but like everything size can be decisive.  Google is already massively dominant in the internet market and this enormous digitization project effectively seals off any competition.  Europeana (the EU project) is a case in point (see my earlier post here) with frankly fairly limited print content and no real programme of including other works – specifically these “orphan” books.

I use the preview function all the time and I am constantly amazed at how the internet revolution has enabled us to seek out and find knowledge.  However, I think we just have to be careful what we wish for, and ensure that Google is really the right company to have virtual monopoly over the supply.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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