Thursday, October 20, 2005

Google and the Death of Art

Back when Napster was arguing -- in vain -- that musicians were somehow improved by the free sharing of their hard work, I was mildly perplexed. What didn't cyberspace and its clone-army of teenage freeloaders understand about artists (or anyone really) expecting to be compensated for their skills? Fortunately, a judge agreed and free file-sharing is no longer openly promoted at Napster.

Comes now Google with its plan to scan every book in three major libraries -- and, one must assume, eventually every book ever printed. The idea, the mega-monstrous Google argues, is to make public-domain books available online and to create a super-referenced "cyber-card catalog" of everything else. That's not a problem for books like "Oliver Twist" or "Pride and Prejudice" or "Mutiny on the Bounty" or any other works older than 100 years, all of which can be freely reprinted in any form.

But for books like, say, "Angel Fire" by Ron Franscell -- published in 1998 and still earning royalties enough to buy a Whopper every year or so -- Google is coming perilously close to usurping my riches for its own profit. Google says it won't offer online versions of any copyrighted books without the authors' and publishers' permission, but forgive me for being a little Napster- and Amazon-jaded. With a few extra clicks under some future policy, my books could be read by anyone online and I will forever be robbed of my annual Whopper. And so will my heirs, dammit.

Right now, Amazon offers the sale of used books -- sometimes on the same day the book hits shelves for the first time -- and takes its cut from the sale. But the author makes zip. Amazon also asks for more of a share of the book profits than any other bookseller, and far more than the author ever gets. The typical $25 book sold at Amazon earns more than $14 for Amazon and less than $2 for the author. And when it's sold again in the "used" market, Amazon has found a way to keep profiting, but the author and publisher are cut out entirely.

Any system that allows a consumer to collect copyrighted material without reimbursing the artist (assuming the artist hasn't permitted it) is theft. The Internet has created a generation of users who think everything should be free to them. Google Print might not only imperil art creation, it could imperil public libraries if courts are forced to determine the proper compensation for writers.

Face it, nobody (including greedy Google, Napster and Amazon) is going to invest millions in a system for the benefit of public erudition and artists' profit. Authors have always politely or passionately supported libraries, which are the pre-millennial version of Napster where one copy is passed around freely without ever earning the author more than the royalty on one sale. In cyberspace, they don't even buy it once!

So what? Well, what artist will invest his sweat, blood, tears and money in a craft for which he cannot possibly make a profit? The ultimate effect of Internet profit-centers stealing art (and any profits to made from it) is the death of art. Royalties and direct sales have been the only ways most artists can sustain themselves, and now we're putting control of our world's art in the hands of a bunch of light-averse computer geeks? They do their jobs well ... but when they start getting paid for MY art, I gotta draw the line.

Let Google provide the world's best search engine. Let Google provide this blog-spot (as it does.) Let Google sell all the online ads cyberspace can hold. But, for crying out loud, don't steal the books I didn't write for your bottom-line.

You could at least send a Whopper.


Chris Tabone said...

t’s incredible that you can completely overturn Google’s statements regarding the unavailibility of full copies of these books by your statement, “…With a few extra clicks, my books could be read by anyone online…”

That remark is completely unfounded in any concrete evidence. Have you tried Google Print? There is nowhere on the results page that gives you any other information besides a one or two sentence snippit that includes the search term you had used. Am I supposed to manually guess how each sentence in each paragraph of the book begins and laboriously read its contents line for line? Somehow that seems far from feasible.

These books are not being “stolen”, they’re being archived. What is the difference if I go to my local public library and use their computer card catalog to search for information in a book? Now I can do it from my own house and on a much larger scale.

As far as file-sharing is concerned, it appears as if you have never experienced the P2P community from the people who produce music from their garage. Several of my former college associates in NY promote a large portion of their music over these file sharing networks and it allows them to reach audiences that they could not afford to communicate with on their limited budgets. It would be blindly ignorant to say that the system isn’t abused, people mis-use things every day. Does that make it wrong for them to exist in the first place? What about gun control laws - how about we outlaw guns because a few individuals across the country use them to kill innocent folk. Following your logic, they shouldn’t exist. Also, free file-sharing is still very much openly allowed and promoted - I’m guessing you haven’t heard of the Direct Connect network, Bit Torrent, and OpenFT?

Before you start leaving comments like this in my blog, make sure they are founded on factual arguments and not the innate fallability of opinionated reasoning. We are not “a few extra clicks” from widespread copyright violation - but we are few years away from the a revolution in searching.

Brian Muse said...

Although I disagree with a lot of the statements you make, I see the underlying point of your argument. I enjoyed reasoning and you have somewhat changed my perspective on the whole situation.

Wacoshade said...

How is this different than the Gutenburg project? That's been unerway for many years, archiving various books in the public domain. They have a very good system and have quite a cataloque. What's the deal with Google?

Ron Franscell said...

Gutenberg scans only public-domain materials. Perfectly OK. Google is doing that, too, and only scanning copyrighted materials in order to make a "card catalog."

Publishers and authors disagree that is Google's intention. Plus, there's a question whether Google is legally able to scan an entire copyrighted book and turn it into a profit-making venture without some compensation to the owners of the material.

So your question comes down to copyright-vs-public domain.

Ron Franscell said...

We interpret the “few clicks” statement differently. At this moment, it’s not possible to read my books online “in a few clicks” or otherwise. On that, you’re correct. My meaning was that we are a very short distance from making the already-scanned content available, Napster-like; it makes me quite uncomfortable to have it sitting in a computer where it does not belong and where the entire content is under the control of people who could profit from it without my permission.

Your invocation of the library model is a good one. I talk in my post about the peculiar parallel between the old-style lending library and Google/Napster/Gutenberg file-sharing. To be honest, I’m not comfortable with public libraries ripping off writers either, but as I also said, at least they pay for the book they circulate and the book must be returned. Google’s model essentially would allow the reader to keep the book without the author receiving any compensation for his work. That’s purely theft, no matter how you’d like to parse the notion.

The objection of publishers and editors is not to the existence of a high-powered card catalog. It’s largely to the notion that a copyrighted book is being copied and stored without permission. If you did that with a library book, you’d be breaking the law, too.

The problem is that you take Google at its word and I am skeptical of their intentions. We disagree. That’s all. I base my opinion on the facts I see; you do, too. Perhaps we disagree about the “facts” but what’s new? Your response is one of the first I’ve ever seen in the blogosphere that disses the “innate fallability [sic] of opinionated reasoning.” For better or worse, this is a realm of opinion where the facts are interpreted through our unique prisms. I agree that facts should support those opinions, but merely disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean they haven’t evaluated the “facts.” Opinion is what fuels the blogosphere.

Chris Tabone said...

You raise some interesting points and I agree with your notion that the blogosphere does incorporate many people's opinions thrown together in some sort of free-speech stew.

One of my points where I would like to emphasize is related to your statement, "Google’s model essentially would allow the reader to keep the book without the author receiving any compensation for his work." This has been repeatedly stated by Google to be false. There is no situation, and there will most likely be no situation, where Google is the catalyst to some wide spread file sharing phenomenon.

As a multi-billion dollar company, Google has no intention of blatently violating copyright law by permitting free distribution and storage of the works it has scanned. I'm sure its stockholders would be appalled at that kind of behavior. There's a very important distinction between the business practices and operating procedures of Napster / Google / and Gutenburg. With Napster, there was a freely available file sharing program that permitted individuals to illegally exchange forms of copyrighted music. This, of course, was not the initial intention of the program, but it was the final outcome of the system. This sort of situation is blatently illegal, as I know you have mentioned before in your posts.

However, with Google this is not the case. With the "Google Print" intiative, they are acting as a single entity that is storing and archiving copies of books from public (and private) libraries. They are not providing the architecture or framework for a massive file sharing intiative that would echo that of Napster, Kazaa, etc. Google's databases's of scanned works will not be available to anyone other than the company's programmers. They have expressed no intention of ever changing this strategy - and for good reason! Unless they were to reach some kind of agreement with publishing firms, it would be a fairly obvious violation of copyright on a gigantic scale. It's completely illogical.

I do see where you mention the storage and copying of books from a library as illegal. I'm not familiar with the various laws surrounding that practice, and from what I've read, it does sound as if that is a grey area of legal and ethical dilemma. It will be interesting to see how the court cases pan out when this whole thing is over.

Chris Tabone said...

One more thing - about the "profit-making venture" you mentioned. From the Google Print site:

"Does Google or the library profit when I buy a book from a Google Print page?

On Google Print pages we offer links to popular booksellers where you can buy the book and, in the case of out of print books, we offer links to used booksellers. These links aren't paid for by those sites, nor does Google or any library benefit if you buy something from one of these retailers.

Do you display advertisements on library book pages in Google Print?

No. We currently have no advertisements on books we've scanned through our Library Project. When a publisher chooses to add a book into their Google Print account, then advertisements can appear on the book pages exactly as they do with books submitted directly from through the Publisher Program. This revenue is shared with publishers. Read more about earning revenue through advertisements."

And also in terms of copyright law:

"Does scanning comply with copyright law?

Yes. The use Google makes is fully consistent with both the history of fair use under copyright law, and also all the principles underlying copyright law itself. Copyright law has always been about ensuring that authors will continue to write books and publishers continue to sell them. By making books easier to find, buy, and borrow from libraries, Google Print helps increase the incentives for authors to write and publishers to sell books. To achieve that goal, we need to make copies of books, but these copies are permitted under copyright law.

This project is very similar to web search. In order to electronically index a webpage, you need to make a copy of it. In order to electronically index a book, we have to make a digital copy of the book. As with web search, the copies we make are used to direct people to the books. Our experience with web search is that many people ask to have their web pages included in our search results and very few ask to be excluded."

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