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[publishing] The banal evil of the Google copyright settlement

Google’s motto famously is “Don’t be evil.” Yet the Google Book Settlement is nothing but evil, an assault on copyright so profound even the Mouse lawyers at Disney never thought to try such a broad rights grab.

In the simplest terms, the Authors Guild sued Google over their Google Book Search service, claiming copyright violation. Google has settled for an amount ranging between $60 and $300 per work. By comparison, statutory damages for willful infringement of copyright range up to $150,000 per work.

Now, as it happens, I’d be pleased to have my work inside the Google Books environment. I’m a big believer in electronic distribution and alternative publishing models, and I’m willing to tolerate the miniscule financial impact in return for the wider availability.

The problem isn’t the fact of Google Books, or the level of the settlement. The problem is the conditions of the settlement.

I as the copyright holder am required to either opt-in to the settlement, and receive my payment, or opt-out of the settlement, and preserve my right to separately seek redress. My opt-in/opt-out claim must be postmarked by May 5, 2009, or I lose the ability to defend my copyright.

In other words, Google has asserted a license to my copyright without my prior consent, and further asserted that claim stands unless I proactively state otherwise.

This is theft.

This is no different from me deciding I can come to your house, use your lawnmower, borrow your car and cook on your grill, and then telling you that unless you tell me in writing by a certain date that I cannot use your property, my right to use your property stands.

My copyright is my property as surely as your car or computer are your property. I cannot assert use without your permission.

And the real problem here isn’t Google’s theft. They’ve agreed to compensate for it, and provided a mechanism.

The real problem, the evil here, is the notion now being put into practice that a copyright license can be asserted by a third party in the absence of the copyright holder specifically forbidding it.

All through modern copyright history until now, a licensor seeking a subright was required to negotiate with the copyright holder before exploiting that license. No differently from a tenant seeking to rent a property is required to negotiate with the landlord before they move in.

As of now, I no longer control the subrights to my copyright. Under the terms that Google and the Authors Guild have set up, anyone who wants to make a commercial use of them can do so. It’s up to me to notice, to be aware, and to take steps to defend my copyright. If I don’t, well, too bad for me.

And if you don’t think Hollywood lawyers aren’t already all over this, you’re dreadfully naive.

This has the potential to radically change publishing in ways which are very unfriendly to content creators and copyright holders. Google has done an evil thing to copyright holders, something we may well all come to regret bitterly in the years to come.

Just to make matters worse, the position which seems to be emerging within the publishing industry is, “take the settlement and move on, Google’s too big to fight, and at least you’re getting paid.”

That’s bullshit. That’s like giving away the entire store because the guy stealing the first few candybars is too big to fight. I don’t know why every author in the country isn’t suing Google for statutory damages, right know.

Actually, I do. They’re one of the richest companies in the world. If I brought a suit against them, they would just lawyer me to death or bankruptcy. Google gets to change copyright law for all of us, just because they’re too big to fight.

That’s evil.

Larry and Sergey, if you’re reading this, ask yourself if this is what you meant Google to be? And Eric Schmidt, you as well.

Google (in which I am a stockholder) has gone from being one of my most respected companies to just another Enron, another AIG, another Halliburton.

Corporate evil which is too big to fight.

Thanks, Google, for nothing.

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