Battles on the Digital Frontier

It’s been a while since I broached the subject of e-books, but there have been a spate of articles in The New York Times lately regarding the lawsuit against Google’s endeavor to digitize every book in print.  On Tuesday, March 22, Federal judge Denny Chin ruled against a settlement between Google and the authors and publishers seeking restitution for copyright violations incurred by the project.  The biggest concern for the judge was Google’s ability to turn a profit off of “orphan works,” copyrighted materials whose rightsholders cannot be located.  Winning this private suit would essentially grant Google a monopoly over this sphere of digitized information, granting it rights unavailable to competitors.  Many were disappointed by the ruling, including authors and publishing groups, but Judge Chin has made it clear that a revised settlement will be entertained.

John Sargent, the chief executive of Macmillan, spoke on behalf of the publishers, which included Penguin Group USA, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons….

“The publisher plaintiffs are prepared to modify the settlement agreement to gain approval. We plan to work together with Google, the Authors Guild and others to overcome the objections raised by the court and promote the fundamental principle behind our lawsuit, that copyrighted content cannot be used without the permission of the owner, or outside the law.”

Excerpt from Miguel Helft’s article, “Judge Rejects Google’s Deal to Digitize Books.”

Hot on the heels of this ruling came Robert Darnton’s suggestion that creating a digital library would be a better way to eliminate the electronic void Google’s book project seeks to fill:

The library would respect copyright, of course, and it probably would exclude works that are now in print unless their authors wanted to make them available. It would include orphan books, assuming that Congress passed legislation to free them for non-commercial use in a genuinely public library.

To dismiss this as quixotic would be to ignore digital projects that have proven their value and practicability throughout the last 20 years. All major research libraries have digitized parts of their collections. Large-scale enterprises like the Knowledge Commons and the Internet Archive have themselves digitized several million books.

He goes on to point out the current efforts of many European countries to digitize their entire national library collections, emphasizing that this scheme is not as far-fetched as many would make it out to be.

Still, there are further troubles rearing their heads in this intangible, legal mire as some publishers wish to impose limitations on e-books’ library shelf-life, fixing a checkout quota for the year.  This suggestion has bristled the backs of many librarians, who do not believe in rationing their supply of books, whatever form they take.  The bottom line, however, for both libraries and publishers is money.  Libraries, which have paltry budgets, are operating on outdated agreements that allow them to acquire digital books more cheaply than publishers feel is acceptable, considering the e-book’s increasing popularity.  Why buy when you have unlimited access to the titles through your library’s website, some publishers ask, pointing also to the effect of diminished sales on bookstores and authors themselves.

It is a valid point and one that needs addressed for everyone involved in the book business.  And what will happen if Google’s book project or Danton’s digital public library come into fruition?   If e-books are here to stay, as I begrudgingly accept them to be, pricing and availability need to be honestly evaluated and compromises need to be made, just as the public must reassess its own expectations in this age of cheap, instant gratification.  I don’t foresee e-books completely supplanting printed books, yet I worry that we could be headed toward a future of strictly online bookstores or one where books are printed upon request rather than waiting for me to pluck them from the shelves, much in the way Netflix has driven video stores into the ground.  Look around; more and more Borders are closing and Barnes & Noble exists online and in malls strictly as a Nook vender.  Without proper and fair guidelines in place I’m afraid of what will become of our precious books, just as I fear for those who create them, sell them, and are their keepers.  I am willing to pay a little more to invest in the people and institutions that supply me with books, but most of all I do not want these matters of legality to become a tragedy with bodies strewn about in the name of pride and miscommunication. The play’s the thing, after all.



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