End of Ownership?
That is the core of a controversy all book authors are now tangled up in: the settlement of the lawsuit between the Authors Guild and Google which scanned millions of books and posted them online without their authors’ permission. The case has pitted writer against writer, major corporation against major corporation, the US Copyright Office, and the Department of Justice against a judge who notes that making scanned books available serves a public good. At issue is who will control these scans, how (and how much) authors will be compensated for them, and how to deal with the millions of “orphan works”—books whose authors are dead or unfindable and thus can’t say whether they mind having their work scanned or not.
Besides Google, the Authors Guild also sued Amazon over the text-to-speech features of the Kindle for similar reasons: authors who had sold the right to sell copies of their books, but retained the rights to a later voice recording feared text-to-speech would cut into those sales.
I keep thinking two things. First, that there has to be something fundamentally wrong with a system in which writers are constantly fighting to have fewer people read (or hear) their work. Second, that it’s not going to matter for long, because technology is bringing changes that that will make this battle moot anyway, and those of us who earn our livings writing had better be getting ready for the next one.
I just read that at a panel at NYU, book publishers lamented that their industry is right where the record industry was right before file-sharing. The truth of this is obvious, the question is, what have they learned from that industry’s mistakes? The RIAA decided to deal with file-sharing by suing music downloaders and changing little else about the way they do business. The result is disdain from both musicians and the listening public, both of whom are learning that they can get along fine without the recording industry. Smaller bands are using Amie Street and MySpace to let people know about their work and selling albums and MP3s on their own. Big bands like Pearl Jam and Radiohead are using their clout to sell into audio stores. Everyone recognizes that the album-as-physical-object is on its way out.
The book-as-physical-object is on its way out, too. As we fight over selling and buying digital scans, it might be instructive to take a look at what’s happening in the music industry next. Right now, people still spend money buying individual MP3s, with or without DRM, from iTunes, Amazon, and Rhapsody. Everyone has his or her own music collection. Straightforward enough.
But there are sites that let you pay a monthly fee, or no fee, for listening to music as opposed to buying it. I happen to belong to Napster, the icon of peer-to-peer sharing till it lost its Supreme Court case. I pay a $5 monthly fee, and I get to listen, over the Internet, to pretty much anything I want. Listening is not buying you say? What, exactly, is the difference? I can’t listen when I don’t have an Internet connection, but if, for instance a MyFi gives me Internet all the time everywhere, that difference seems moot. Driving down the highway or hiking in the woods I can stream whatever I like so is there any benefit to having actually bought and paid for a song, never mind an album?
Sometime soon, we’ll be asking the same question about books. It’s the unasked question behind Google’s book scanning. For now, it includes books in its search engine but only lets users see a limited section of what they find, an attempt to justify its scanning under the “fair use” rule that allows for brief citations from copyrighted work.
But a settlement with the Authors Guild would give Google the right to sell or show the entire text. Google is supposedly building a portable reading device, and unlike the Kindle or Sony Reader, users may be able to go online and read books in Google’s collection without actually buying them.
We writers are fighting Google because most (though not all) of us agree that it’s not in our best interest to have a giant corporation have such a large say in deciding what our work is worth. That seems like the right thing to do for now. But what happens when reading a digital book you haven’t bought becomes as easy as listening to a song on Napster?
It’s already happening. I had finished writing this essay last night, and then this morning read this article about how Disney’s new $79/year program gives parents unlimited access to a huge collection of both print and spoken-word children’s stories.
Before book publishing goes the way of the record industry, we need to find something else. A way of being paid for our work that does not depend on how many physical or even virtual copies were sold, that does not give us an incentive to fight text-to-speech or file lawsuits for making our books findable on the world’s most popular search engine. Something that provides a fair living for us and more access to more books for readers—which we writers also are. The question is, what would that system look like?
And how would we get there?