Why We Need a Rights Auction for the Google Book Settlement
*Check this out first if you don't know what's going on here or why you should care.*

Everybody is taking a turn sticking a flashlight up inside the Google Book Settlement right now, from the John Steinbeck estate, to Philip K. Dick's heirs, to the Department of Justice, to the European Union, to all those jolly hobbits at Harvard.

Honestly, I am relieved that people care. It was starting to look like this was going to be the con of the millennium. It's a good thing that this settlement didn't get rubber stamped by an overworked, sympathetic New York court, and all our fates weren't decided in our absence by a tiny-ass "guild" that claims to represent the interests of all "authors" and by a cabal of publishing companies that appears to have zero insight into the future of its own dying industry.

Now that there is some time and we can kick back and look at this settlement with fresh, contrarian eyes, I submit that the answer to how to make this settlement fair is not all that complicated.

Google has been caught with a boat full of pirated goods, and currently the settlement says that since Google is the only one with a boat, they ought to be able to carry on with sailing them to market.

But anyone can build a fucking boat. No one was smuggling pirated goods because we all thought it was illegal. But if it's not? Then we've got a brand new market on our hands.

Instead, I say we haul alllllll those goods down to the docks, unpack them, see what they are, and put them up for auction. If Google wants to hold on to their stolen merchandise, I say we make them pay for it, same as anybody else. If nobody wants what they've got, they can keep it.

I think Google has a valid point about orphan works. Something needs to be done about orphaned books as far as publishing goes (these are books that are out-of-print, but still in copyright). No one wants to publish them, but they are around, and they should be available for people to read. Information may want to be free, but the information unfortunately got married when it was young to somebody called a "creator," and until that "creator" dies, that information can't just go around stepping out on the town with any old technology company offering posies, chocolates, and new spats.

Besides, all that attention is temporary. Google is only offering somewhere between $60 and $300 for the rights to sell these books without getting sued. They are going to put them up in a colossal database where they will be filed away and forgotten.

Google will not put these books in people's faces. They are banking on volume and not promotion to profit from these books. Additionally, they will make back the brunt of their initial investment by selling their collections to libraries and public universities, which are funded by taxpayers.

So really, all Google is doing here is trying to get money from the government, just like the rest of us welfare leeches.

Most importantly, I think the price that Google is paying is far too low, and that the people who will suffer from this are writers. I think there are a hell of a lot of orphan books out there whose rights I would want to buy if I had the chance, and I know I am not alone.

If publishing REALLY wants to keep existing, the future is in electronic publishing, and publishers should not give away the rights to all of these INCREDIBLY lucrative works just because they don't understand what's going on.

So here's what we should do:

1. Google should release a catalog of all the books that they have scanned and to which they will be receiving the rights if this settlement is approved.

2. They should create and host an online bidding system ala eBay. Anyone in the world can bid on the rights to these books for a period of two years. Whoever has the highest bid after two years gets the rights. The money goes directly to the author (if they can be found), or into the Book Rights Registry if not, as per the terms of the original plan. The author also has the right to turn down any bid or negotiate any new contract they desire. Naturally.

3. Any books that no one bids on will default to Google as a reward for scanning them in the first place. It must have been an expensive task and it must have been really hard to do. But yeah, so what? No one asked them to scan these books. Copyright infringement costs $150,000 for each violation if I do it. What's a million times $150,000?

This rights auction will be massive, fascinating, and will give birth to a whole new modern age and market: the age of epublishing. There is no rush on these books. Nobody wanted them before, and the scans aren't going anywhere.

Seeing the rights for potentially lucrative books available for purchase, companies will form to squat on rights and bidding wars will take place between tech companies who think they can do better scans. A book stock market will drive up prices. Those who ultimately profit will be the authors of these works, which is as it should be.

Authors out there. Listen to me. Is it a better deal if one company just GETS the rights to your works for an arbitrarily small price determined by some mathematical algorithm protected by a non-disclosure agreement?

Or wouldn't you rather have two years to see what the work is really worth on the open market? You lose nothing. You'll still get paid by Google at the end of two years if no one else wants the work, and you COULD make thousands of dollars for the rights to your work, if not hundreds of thousands. The worst thing that could happen is that you get the bare minimum price that Google is willing to pay.

Additionally, whoever ends up buying your rights might do much better justice to the material than Google. What does Google care about your work? About marketing it, selling it, republishing it, and getting it into the hands of people who want to read it? They aren't readers. They aren't editors. They don't bleed ink and sweat typefaces. They are a tech company. They are going to put your book up in some ugly chrome browser and it will look exactly like the ugly old library book that nobody wanted in the first place.

Moreover, and here is the most important point, Google is reserving the right to keep salacious, controversial, and pornographic works OUT of their database, the same way that they control content on YouTube. But porn, hate, and controversy are hugely profitable! A company that wants to publish these works ought to have the right. Google should not have the ability to bury literature forever. The originals of these books will fade, crack, and croak before the rights expire into the public domain, and Google will have effectively suffocated certain objectionable books to death.

Google will protest that they did these scans out of their own pocket and that they should get to keep the rights to them or toss them away for no one to read. So maybe they should get a tiny percentage of the auction fee from every sale, like an auction house does.

Details aside, these books ought to be up for grabs to ANYBODY in the world who is willing to pay, not just Google. Otherwise, it's an antitrust issue. Otherwise, the settlement should be broken up for good.

Which would be a shame. Come on Google. Play ball fair.

Posted by miracle on Fri, 19 Jun 2009 11:04:11 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design