Google Books, Chapter 2: The Worldwide Resistance

by Irvin Muchnick on April 29, 2009

This article was written just before the Justice Department announced that it is opening an inquiry into the antitrust implications of the proposed Google Books settlement.

Your correspondent prides himself on understatement over hyperbole, and Monday’s Beyond Chron piece, “Google Books Settlement Has Bombed in New Haven,” met that standard. As the article noted, even as it was being published, a federal judge was ruling on a challenge to the settlement by the Internet Archive, a Google competitor. (The Internet Archive was not allowed to “intervene” but is still entitled to file objections.)

On Friday, attorneys representing a coalition of authors and authors’ estates also asked Judge Denny Chin to extend the deadline for opting out or objecting from May 5 to September 7. “This is not a typical class action settlement, in which parties decide whether value offered in settlement is sufficient to compensate them for a past injury,” the letter motion stated, but “a decision about perpetual future rights.” That is precisely one of the arguments by the objectors in a parallel case before the Supreme Court involving infringement of freelance journalists, which is now known as Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick.

The architect of the Google sellout, Authors Guild lawyer Michael Boni, responded by telling Judge Chin that the plaintiffs and Google had already been “independently” discussing an extension of the opt-out/objection deadline, and was proposing a more modest 60-day extension, to August 6. Court observers expect the extension to be approved.

The representatives of the motion to extend the deadline are an odd bunch, including Arlo Guthrie and the estates of John Steinbeck and the late Berkeley science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. This points to one of the complexities of copyright politics. In 1998, by the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,” Congress changed the term of copyright from “life plus 50 years” to “life plus 70.” Though familiar with the arguments in favor of it, I personally am not a big fan of letting heirs hoard and profit from works that could more speedily be funneled into the public domain. I don’t like it because it makes all authors come off like big-time franchises, who are closer to Disney’s goal of eternal branding than most of the rest of us. We recognize and are much more flexible about the tradeoffs of public access. We are not bent on charging for “every bit and byte.”

But after fighting in the wilderness for so many years to get class actions like the freelance cases properly oriented toward both writers’ rights and the public interest, I am happy to see support emerging for resistance to the Google settlement, which offers a somewhat easier educational platform. Whatever it takes.

Meanwhile, what the New York Times a few weeks ago called the “jelling” of Google opposition, and what Publishers Weekly yesterday called “resistance stiffening,” has flamed into a spontaneous global phenomenon.

In Japan, Daily Yomiuri, 174 prominent writers — including poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, picture book author Taro Gomi, and novelist Taku Miki — banded together to tell Google to buzz off.

In Britain, the Booksellers Association, in a letter to Bookseller.com, reiterated its call “for UK publishers to prevent Google from commercially exploiting their titles online until it is clearer how the digital market will develop. The BA has also repeated its warning that the settlement between Google and the US Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers results in Google being ‘handed a monopoly,’ with competitors ‘placed at a considerable disadvantage.'”

And in Germany, the website of Der Spiegel headlines a story, “German Authors Outraged at Google Book Search.” More than 1,300 German authors have signed what is being called the “Heidelberg Appeal,” a letter to President Horst Köhler, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other public officials. “German Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann told the daily tabloid Bild that he will fight to protect the authors’ rights. ‘The resentment shown toward Google is justified,’ Neumann said, in comments published Monday. ‘It is essential that we find some international agreements on this matter.'”

Let’s hope these words waft all the way to One First Street Northeast in Washington, home of the Supreme Court.

Irvin Muchnick blogs at http://freelancerights.blogspot.com and http://muchnick.net/babylon, and tweets at http://twitter.com/irvmuch

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