Authors tangled in a complex web

 

It’s a tougher read than ‘Ulysses’, and more complex than ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but the Google book settlement will have a massive impact on authors’ futures, writes ROSITA BOLAND.

FITTINGLY, THE unwiped blackboard in the lecture theatre at the Royal College of Surgeons, where some 35 people gathered on Monday for a seminar on the Google book settlement, is covered with complex algorithms. Or, at least, I think they are algorithms. At the end of the three-hour session, which has been organised by Poetry Ireland, all I know is that these scribbled mathematical sequences left behind from some other class are at least as complex to the average lay person as the ramifications of the Google book settlement are to me.

This is no fault at all of Sam Holman, director of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency, who has had the unenviable task of heroically trying to explain a settlement so difficult that, on its home website, googlebooksettlement.com, the FAQs alone run to 82. If you’re tackling a topic that has no fewer than 82 FAQs, then you can imagine how many other ancillary questions there are lined up behind them.

Google’s business is aggregation of information; so far, their search engine has demolished all other competition in that area. Their dauntingly assertive and ambitious mission statement is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The reason these Irish writers and illustrators – some of whom don’t even use computers – are sitting here on a Monday morning in July is to try and understand the copyright implications of Google’s most ambitious project yet. This is the Google book settlement, a fiendishly complicated Hydra.

Here is, more or less, the story to date. In 2004, Google made an agreement with many academic libraries, including Harvard and Oxford, to digitise their collections. Oxford, in common with Trinity College and several other libraries, automatically receive copies of all new books published in Britain and Ireland. Thus, at its simplest level, if you have published a book in Ireland, or had a piece of work in an Irish-published anthology, this decision automatically affects you. To date, seven million books have been digitised, five million of which are copyright protected.

In 2005, the Authors Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers sued Google in a class action for copyright infringement. It never came to court, because in October 2008, they collectively came to a $125 million (€88 million) settlement. Google agreed to pay $45 million (€31.6 million) to rights-holders whose books were digitised without their permission. $34.5 million (€24 million) goes to establishing and funding a Book Rights Registry – and the rest is allocated for the lawyers. In return, Google gets to use the digitised material in a vast and inventive variety of non-traditional ways, virtually all of which are, unsurprisingly, aimed at generating revenue for Google.

For example, new revenue models may include print-on-demand course packs for educational and professional markets, PDF downloads, consumer subscription models and so on. This is just some of what is contained in the 141-page settlement report – minus its 13 multi-page attachments. Google can also use selected pieces of material to sell ads. As Fintan O’Toole surmised in April, “Picture this . . . You read, ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed’ and you get Weight Watchers at the top of your screen and Gillette at the bottom.”

WHAT ABOUT PAYMENTS to authors? Google has agreed to pay $60 (€42) for each complete work it has digitised, and $15 (€10.50) for each “insert” (eg foreword, anthologised poem) in a book. There is also a complicated template for payment received via those theoretical ads from Weight Watchers and Gillette: in the most basic form of the agreement, you get 63 per cent of that type of ad revenue. Don’t even start thinking about how a US-sourced dollar payment makes its way to you, via the gateways of US taxation and currency conversion, because Google doesn’t appear to have figured that challenge out yet.

So what happens next? Authors and rights-holders have until September 4th to decide whether to opt out. You are automatically “opted in” if you don’t opt out, due to the terms of a class action settlement. To have any control over what happens to your digitised work, you must claim your works by January 5th, 2010, to have a say over how that material is used. That is, you must actively engage with the process to deal with the implications. As it stands at present, ignoring it, or opting out, means you both forfeit the miserly fee Google owes you for copyright and, more importantly, your right to have a say in how your material is used, or your right to then proceed to request Google remove the work altogether.

The final fairness hearing is on October 7th in the district court of New York, the purpose of which is merely to determine if the settlement is “fair, reasonable and adequate”. So, in theory, it’s not yet a done deal, but the consensus is that, given Google now has both the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers on board, it would be extraordinary if it didn’t happen. If you opt in, you have until January 5th, 2010, to claim your payment. The next significant date after that is April 5th, 2011, which is the deadline for removing your digitised work from the Google database – only possible by first claiming your work.

According to Sam Holman, even if you opt out and then notify the courts by letter that you are the rights holder, it doesn’t mean that Google won’t use your digitised material. It’ll simply wait for you to sue, in an American court, for copyright infringement. You, against a company which had revenues of $5.5 billion (€4.23 billion) last year.

IN AN EFFORT to try and make something tangible which until now has been wholly abstract to me, I decide to register at googlebooksettlement.com to see which, if any, of my books have been digitised. I create an account name and a password, and go into the site. Next I go to “find and claim”, then, “search for books”. The easiest search option is by author name. My work is in several anthologies – that’d be at least $5 (€3.50) per poem – but I honestly can’t be bothered searching for them by individual title, some of which I simply can’t remember. So I focus on searching for full-length books. I guess Google’s $45 million payment allocation is calculated on very many people not bothering to claim any – or all of – their rights, just as I’m not doing now. That’s one up to Google already.

A list of six books appears, one of which only counts once, since it appeared in both hardback and paperback. So that’s five, one of which has several contributors, so frankly I don’t understand what it’s doing there: is it not defined as an anthology? Well, there it is, one way or the other. Next I download the results as a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has many, many, many headings and boxes. My head starts to thud with a dull, persistent ache. I’d rather be doing almost anything else right now than this.

I go to the box that says “digitisation status”. Three of the books, two poetry and one non-fiction, are out of print. None of those have been digitised. One of the publishers, Raven Arts Press, no longer exists. So who owns the rights for those out-of-print books? Shamefully, I realise I have no idea about the non-fiction, but I know Gallery Press now looks after the poetry. The two books still in print have been digitised, one a non-fiction book with New Island books and the other a collection of poems with Gallery. So whether I like it or not, my work is most definitely part of the Google books settlement.

When I call editorial director Deirdre O’Neill at New Island, she tells me I am the first of their authors to have contacted her about the settlement. “We haven’t done anything at all about it yet,” she confesses. “I guess it hasn’t really registered with people yet. We certainly should do something about it in August.”

At Gallery Press, my publisher Peter Fallon declares bluntly and angrily: “The agreement is founded on an abuse of copyright and, as a matter of principle, these rights need to be protected.” Gallery hasn’t contacted its authors yet. “We have to clarify the position of our authors with rights in the US, our own position, and then we’ll communicate with authors,” he explains.

The Google book settlement is on such an intimidatingly large scale that individual authors, agents, rights-holders and publishers are only now trying to grasp what the consequences will be. However, digitisation is now firmly part of the future of publishing. This is a running story that will run and run.