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.