The Future of Books

The settlement of two lawsuits last week — between publishers and Google, and between authors and Google — marked a landmark success for copyright holders and a look at part of the future of books.
The dispute focused on Google Book Search. Google started out by trying to reach agreements with publishers to scan and post portions of their books on-line. Some agreements emerged. For example, Simon & Schuster reached terms that included my book, The Summer of 1787, for posting portions of the book online. The theory is the same as when the supermarket offers samples of a new product. Maybe you’ll like it enough to buy it.
That was fine. Also fine was Google’s agreement with a variety of sell-out academic libraries to scan and post books for which copyright had expired. For my forthcoming book on the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, that was a great resource. Memoirs of 19th century politicians like Gideon Welles and James G. Blaine were available through Google Book Search, so I could read them online from home. Terrific!
But Google (corporate motto = “don’t be evil”) stumbled when it could not find the copyright owners for millions of volumes. That’s not surprising. It can be difficult to find the copyright holders in many instances.
Google took a shortcut. It scanned and posted a lot of books without such agreements, thereby stealing property from the copyright holder, and it also scanned and posted “snippets” of a lot of other books, claiming it was OK under the “fair use” doctrine. (That doctrine allows you to take a short quote from a copyrighted work, or parody it, so long as the use is attributed.)
The Authors Guild, along with two Washington writers (Paul Dickson and Joe Goulden) sued Google under the copyright laws, as did several major publishers. The publishers also sued. The role played by Paul and Joe was recognized in a recent blog posting at the Washington Post.
Joseph C. Goulden
Paul Dickson
Google, sensibly, recognized that it was on the wrong side of this dispute. Stoutly (and foolishly) insisting that it had done no wrong, the company negotiated for two years over a settlement that plainly involves major concessions, but also may raise impressive business opportunities for Google. (The settlement is subject to court approval, but I’m very confident it will be approved.)
— Google can show up to 20% of a book online at no charge to the user, and then may sell access to the whole book through an online transaction. Google gets 37% of revenue from sales and advertising around the books, and the publishers and authors will split the rest. (Note to Authors Guild: Be tough in negotiating with the publishers; they are not our friends on this issue.)
— Google will pay to establish a digital book registry to run the scanning operation and distribute payments from Google.
— Academic and public libraries will have access, for free, to Google’s database. This sounds warm and fuzzily democratic, but it strikes me as a possible leak in the system. Libraries pay for books on their shelves; why not for books in their computers?
There are still plenty of risks facing copyright holders. Books and audio books now can be downloaded over the Internet, and are, to MP3s, Sony Readers, and Amazon Kindles. The prospect of bootleg copies in circulation seems inevitable once the market matures for books in those versions.
Which leads to questions about the future of the book. The printed book is champion today. Sales of my book in hard-copy version are approximately 240 times higher, so far, than sales in e-book format. But I’m crazy about audio books to fill up empty time in the car (I’m just burned out on NPR), and am starting to see e-book readers on airplanes these days.
I think all of these different media will be part of the future of the book, and that people (at least some people) will always want the intensely private pleasure of reading a book, and will admire those who can tell a story well. Humans started out telling stories around campfires, and we still want to hear those stories. The trick will be making sure that the storytellers will still get a warm meal and a soft bed in return for telling them through the new media.
Congratulations to the American Association of Publishers, the Authors Guild, Paul, and Joe for making sure that Google didn’t shut us out this time. But this is only the first battle in a campaign for fairness to authors that may never really end.


  1. John Curry on November 10, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Bit of irony: I just posted your journal entry to Facebook without your permission (including a visual plucked from your site) but giving you full credit and leading readers back to your blog.
    I know … but no money was involved. jc

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