Authors struggle, mostly in vain, against their fated obscurity. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales from major booksellers, only 2 percent of the 1.2 million unique titles sold in 2004 had sales of more than 5,000 copies. Against this backdrop, the recent Authors Guild suit against the Google Library Project is poignantly wrongheaded.
The Authors Guild claims that Google’s plan to make the collections of five major libraries searchable online violates copyright law and thus harms authors’ interests. As both an author and publisher, I find the Guild’s position to be exactly backward. Google Library promises to be a boon to authors, publishers and readers if Google sticks to its stated goal of creating a tool that helps people discover (and potentially pay for) copyrighted works. (Disclosure: I am a member of the publisher advisory board for Google Print. As the name implies, it is simply an advisory group, and Google can take or leave its suggestions.)
What’s causing all the fuss? Google has partnered with the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public Library and Oxford University. Google will scan and index their library collections, so that when a reader searches Google Print for, say, “author’s rights,” the results point to books that contain that term. In a format that resembles its current Web search results, Google will show snippets (typically, fewer than three sentences of text from each page of each book) that include the search term, plus information about the book and where to find it. Google asserts that displaying this limited amount of content is protected by the “fair use” doctrine under United States copyright law; the Authors Guild claims that it is infringement, because the underlying search technology requires a digitized copy of the entire work.
I’m with Google on this one. It would certainly be considered fair use, if, for example, I circulated a catalog of my favorite books, including a handful of quotations from each book that helps people to decide whether to buy a copy. In my mind, providing such snippets algorithmically on demand, as Google does, doesn’t change that dynamic. Google allows click-through to the entire book only if the book is in the public domain or if publishers have opted in to the program. If it’s unclear who owns the rights to a book, only the snippets are displayed.
A search engine for books will be revolutionary in its benefits. Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors than copyright infringement, or even outright piracy. While publishers invest in each of their books, they depend on bestsellers to keep afloat. They typically throw their products into the market to see what sticks and cease supporting what doesn’t, so an author has had just one chance to reach readers. Until now.
Google promises an alternative to the obscurity imposed on most books. It makes that great corpus of less-than-bestsellers accessible to all. By pointing to a huge body of print works online, Google will offer a way to promote books that publishers have thrown away, creating an opportunity for readers to track them down and buy them. Even online sellers like Amazon offer only a small fraction of the university libraries’ titles. While there are many unanswered questions about how businesses will help consumers buy the books they’ve found through a search engine for printed materials that is as powerful as Google’s current Web search, there’s great likelihood that Google Print’s Library Project will create new markets for forgotten content. In one bold stroke, Google will give new value to millions of orphaned works.
I’m sorry to see authors buy into the old-school protectionism of the Authors Guild, not realizing they’re acting against their own self-interest. Their resistance can come only from a failure to understand the nature of the program. Google Library is intended to help readers discover copyrighted works, not to give copies away. It’s a tremendous service to authors that will help them beat the dismal odds of publishing as usual.