Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ursula K. Le Guin Resigns from the Authors Guild

Hi.  Not much news of late because I came down some kind of gastrointestinal bug a few days ago and am sick as dog.  Well, it's not quite that bad.  I'm as semi-sick as a dog.  An aire-, perhaps, or a -schund.

But I soldier on.  Today, I thought you'd be interested in reading, if you haven't already:

Ursula K.  Le Guin's letter of resignation from the Authors Guild

18 December 2009

To Whom it may concern at the Authors Guild:

I have been a member of the Authors Guild since 1972.

At no time during those thirty-seven years was I able to attend the functions, parties, and so forth offered by the Guild to members who happen to live on the other side of the continent. I have naturally resented this geographical discrimination, reflected also in the officership of the Guild, always almost all Easterners. But it was a petty gripe when I compared it to my gratitude to the Guild for the work you were doing in defending writers’ rights. I went on paying top dues and thought it worth it.

And now you have sold us down the river.

I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

So, after being a loyal if invisible member for so long, I am resigning from the Guild. I am, however, retaining membership in the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, both of which opposed the “Google settlement.” They don’t have your clout, but their judgment, I think, is sounder, and their courage greater.

Yours truly,

Ursula K. Le Guin

This is vintage Le Guin -- calm, reasoned, a model of lucidity, practically unanswerable.  So of course the Authors Guild tried to answer her.  Their argument was essentially: Yes, it would have been nice to keep copyright the way it was, that's why we sued Google in the first place.  But if we'd lost, then anybody could have copied anything and sold downloads of it without regard for the author's wishes.

So they panicked and, as Le Guin said, sold us down the river.

We're at the end of a decade that began with the attack on the World Trade Towers and ended with the Google Settlement, and everyone's looking for a name for it.  May I proffer, without wish of personal credit, the Age of Cowardice?

You can read the Guardian's even-handed account here.  Or the Authors Guild's statement here.  Both links courtesy of Locus, of course.



Richard Mason said...

This is vintage Le Guin -- calm, reasoned

Well, calm yes, reasoned no. In the letter she explicitly declines to explain her reasoning with regard to the settlement.

Look, in the last two decades we have seen truly brazen, atrocious copyright violations on a massive scale. We now have most of a generation smugly convinced that copyright is for fuddy-duddies. ("Don't you understand that I don't take anything from you if I make a copy, Grandpa?") Cory Doctorow writes stories in which people who believe in copyright protection are the Nazis.

Against that backdrop, Google's copyright infringement is comparatively mild--even respectful of the idea of intellectual property.

One could characterize Google's scheme as gathering up a lot of seemingly abandoned property and quietly trying to make money out of it. Whatever the merits of such an action, it is not quite the same as open robbery of a visible owner. Nor does it really undermine the whole concept of property, as Le Guin suggests... it's a fact of life that property can be abandoned, and the moral thing isn't necessarily to let it molder on the ground forever.

So, I think that LeGuin's "devil" language is somewhat intemperate, as is the Authors Guild rhetoric that "authors would have no say." I don't think Google has ever defied or proposed defying the wishes of any author who voiced those wishes.

Michael Swanwick said...

I've spoken to one of the lawyers fighting the settlement and he says it gives Google the right to sell any book that is out of print.

Let me repeat that:

Any book.

Out of print.

Which includes most of my own work. And once Google starts selling them, there's awfully little chance of getting any of it back into print.

A person who works without pay is a volunteer.

A person who works without pay involuntarily is a slave.

So, really, being sold down the river was exactly the right metaphor.

My take on this is also partially colored by talks with people in the publishing industry who honestly believe it's entirely possible that in five years there were BE no publishing industry. Just one big remainder sale of books, desks, and laptops before the lights go out.

A lot of people far more knowledgeable than myself do honestly believe that, if this goes through, it will mean the death of copyright.

That's why Le Guin and I are so angry. It has nothing to do with orphan books.

Richard Mason said...

Thanks for clarifying your objections.

I can only point to the text of the settlement agreement (emphasis added):

Attachment A, Article VI (Out-of-Print Books):
"6.1.(b) For all Out-of-Print Books for which the rights have reverted to the Author [...] only an Author of such Books shall be considered a Rightsholder for purposes of directing Removal, exclusion, changes in Display Uses and/or levels of access for any Revenue Model. The Author will control the pricing for Consumer Purchase of such Books.

"(c) For all Out-of-Print Books for which the rights have not reverted to the Author and that are neither works-for-hire nor Author-Controlled, both (i) the Author and (ii) the Publisher shall be considered the Rightsholder[...] If, at any time, an Author and the Publisher of a Book issue conflicting directions to the Registry regarding the uses authorized for such Out-of-Print Book, the more restrictive directions as to levels of access will control (i.e., the Registry shall act in accordance with the request authorizing the fewest or most limited uses of the Out-of-Print Book)."

So, I can't see what your lawyer friend was talking about. The settlement does not empower Google to sell any out-of-print book over the veto of the author or publisher (whoever holds the rights; and where the rights are ambiguously held, each one has a veto).

And of course, anyone who doesn't like the settlement as it pertains to their own works (not orphan works) can simply opt out of the settlement, and perhaps file their own lawsuit against Google. But that seems unnecessarily litigious compared to simply ordering the removal of the works in question.

Michael Swanwick said...

Rather than the two of us argue legal clauses, Richard, why don't you you point me toward the instructions that allow me to exclude and/or withdraw my work?

My understanding is that I missed the opt-out deadline, but I'd be grateful to be proved wrong.

Richard Mason said...

Sure. To begin with, there's this removal request page which I suspect predates the whole Authors Guild lawsuit. You could use that to send Google a removal request independent of the Settlement.

You can opt out of the Settlement here. On the opt-out form you can list all the works that Google should remove. The new deadline to opt out is January 28, 2010.

Note, however, that if you don't opt out of the settlement, you can still choose to remove all your works, while receiving a small cash payment from Google as compensation for their copyright infringement to date. There is a tool here that lets you find, claim, and issue removal requests for works. They have also (by popular demand?) instituted a "simplified" procedure that consists of sending the list of works by email or mail to the Settlement Administrator.

There is a deadline of April 5, 2011 to have already-digitized works physically deleted from the database. However, there is no deadline to have works "excluded", i.e., you can always forbid Google from displaying a work, though the file remains on a hard drive somewhere and the libraries cooperating with Google will still have a copy.

I hope you find one of these options helpful!

Richard Mason said...

So, I can't see what your lawyer friend was talking about.

Is it possible that he was taking a publisher's viewpoint, and complaining that the settlement allows Google to sell any out-of-print book with the (at least tacit) approval of the author to whom the rights had reverted?

I can see why that might irk a publisher, though not the approving author.

Indeed, there's an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times along those very lines: a publisher grousing that the heirs of William Styron can get paid for licensing e-book editions of his work, without Random House getting a cut.