ASJA’s stance on the “Googlization of Copyright”


With the September 4th opt-out deadline for the settlement in Authors Guild v. Google (2005) just around the corner, the American Society of Journalism came out swinging in a release yesterday afternoon against the search-heavyweights book search practices. Two things, first some background, documents and other statements, but then it’s getting the highlighter treatment.

Here’s the bottom line, via the Electronic Frontier Foundation (this way you don’t have to read all 141 pages of legalese):

This agreement will allow Google to get close to its original goal of including all of those books into Google’s search results (publishers got some concessions, however, for in-print books). In addition to search, scanned public domain books will be available for free PDF download (as they are today). But the agreement goes beyond Google’s Book Search by permitting access, as well. Unless authors specifically opt out, books that are out-of-print but still copyrighted will be available for “preview” (a few pages) for free, and for full access for a fee. In-print books will be available for access only if rightsholders affirmatively opt in. The upshot: Google users will have an unprecedented ability to search (for free) and access (for a fee) books that formerly lived only in university libraries.

So, that brings us back to ASJA’s statement yesterday, wonderfully indirect in its language and stall tactics. It’s short, so you can read the whole thing, but here’s the part that matters (emphasis added):

Before they are writers, ASJA members are book-lovers and citizens. The ASJA board believes there simply must be language in the settlement document preventing censorship and limiting how Google can use the data it will collect on who is browsing, reading and buying books. Without it, the possibilities for privacy invasion and for the censorship of a book, an author, or even a whole category of books are chilling — especially when the corporation will have little or no competition. We all know the strength of Google’s algorithms for interpreting online activity. The ads that pop up when we search show it to us daily.

ASJA SAYS, STOP THE GOOGLIZATION OF COPYRIGHT LAW. Do we really want Google and a committee making law? Essentially, that is what “opt out” requirements in the proposed settlement do. The ASJA believes that if copyright law needs to be nimbler in this digital age, it still should be Congress calling the plays. We will ask the court to direct the removal of deadlines for opting out of the Book Search. Copyright holders should control their works.

The problem voiced by the ASJA, guised by the ridiculous claim above, is the narrow definition of protection and claims that it only protects Google’s and large publishing houses’ interests in copyright law. According to them, the settlement doesn’t do enough to build in future protections that surround small publishers and authors not under those labels. The claim then develops a foundation on court-made copyright law, privacy concerns/censorship, and the greatest phrase of all time, “The Googlization of Copyright.”

The idea that Congress can be nimble about anything related to media in the digital age – especially when many legislators are probably still relying on that deputy press secretary to explain half of it anyway – is equally ludicrous to anything the ASJA claims about the settlement’s shortcomings. Does ASJA truly believe that? I’d like to imagine not. They are just trying to get this out there to express the real desire: extending/removing the opt-out deadline.

This is why I love this: the Authors Guild itself has provided counsel to its members on the relative value in opting-out.

There’s not much time left for authors to opt out. What should I do?

Short answer: nothing.

Longer answer: Opting out of the settlement is for authors who want to preserve their right to sue Google themselves. We don’t think there are any such authors.

Google wants your books. The legal claims of that service are numerous: whether the effort is a public work or not, anti-competitive or not, commercial or public good. Is the fact that Google can technically figure out what you are reading be consider a severe invasion of privacy?

Then there’s the giant advertising question (Google does pave its empire on ads, don’t forget): Is the only purpose of the service to serve ads against books? Who knows, but if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em:

authors guild ad

The Guild has come to terms with how Google Book Search and its relative projects will work. ASJA feels that it was left out away from the inner circle of the larger association. There’s your bottom line. If it’s looking for a miracle, it will have to come in the way of a nimble Congress.


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