And Not-So-Free Books

Yesterday I emoted a bit on the prospect of an all-information-all-the-time database which the public could access for free, and as exemplars of this paradigm shift away from market-driven pay-as-you-go access to information I cited Project Gutenberg and Google Books. While Project Gutenberg’s 30,000+ tomes are indeed free — really free — to anyone with access to a computer or virtually any e-reader with a USB port, my reference to Google Books was more optimistic than exemplary. While Google has already scanned and plans to offer over 12 million books to the public pursuant to the the Google Books Settlement (the revised version of which is still pending court approval based on Justice Department concerns), the reality is that these books won’t be free. You can look at 20% of any book for free (by default), but Google Books will charge you a fee to access the entire book.  While digitizing all books is obviously the only way to ensure their continued availability and survival, the myriad of problems surrounding ownership rights and the ever-present-issue of “Who gets paid?” still have a few kinks to be worked out. Although they may not be insurmountable, at the moment these kinks loom Everest-like over the prospect of a happy ending.  Under the current regime, that book you can check out at the library and read for free? You can’t read it online without paying a fee.  For a detailed discussion of the copyright issues surrounding the Google Books Settlement, see the article by Annalee Newitz of io9.com here.

2 comments

  1. Mark Melickian says:

    Okay, I’ll kick things off here. The “who gets paid” question IS the question, and one that Annalee Newitz deftly sidesteps in her piece (though it seems clear that she supports the premise that a writer should, as a matter of public policy, write for glory rather than lucre). Up front, I’ll state that I’m with Harlan Ellison on this one – writers are entitled to be paid.

    But the question is more nuanced than just “who gets paid”. Authors grant publishers subsidiary rights to distribute through various channels with agreements on how the revenue stream is split. For writers with contracts drafted pre-Google Books or that don’t take into account Google Books, I suspect there can be serious disagreements between author and publisher about how that distribution stream is monetized and which revenue-sharing bucket that revenue stream falls into under the author’s publishing contract.

    As for library books, those books aren’t “free” – the authors and publishers were paid for them. However, authors and publishers have long baked that distribution model – which only minutely dilutes the overall revenue stream for a popular book – into their expectations and revenue sharing model. The Google Books “library” is a different animal, not just a difference in degree.

  2. Mark, thanks for chiming in. I agree that writers deserve to be paid (of course) — my real beef is with the issue of how long their estates deserve to get paid, which seems to be determined more by Mickey Mouse’s owner than the novelist appearing at my local bookstore tonight.

    And yes, everyone who has a pre-Google Books contract is likely to have issues with their publishers, just as all the writers before the advent of the e-reader had issues with the rights to their digital content.

    As for the library, I can’t quibble with your argument. The little-used community library is no threat to book sales; these days, it’s more of a place for teens to hang out and use the computers which seem to occupy most of the available seating space. I guess I just have inappropriate non-commercial yearnings about reading what I want, when I want, in my Platonic ideal of a library.

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