D-Day approaches for Google's assault on writers' copyright

 

CULTURE SHOCK:Google’s latest move strikes at the heart of the ability of artists to make decisions about the use of their work, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

PICTURE THIS. You read “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, and up pops an ad for a dating agency.

You read “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”, ads for Odearest mattresses and bug repellent swim before your eyes. You read “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” and a message from Omega urges you to buy a new watch.

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.

Fanciful? Not at all. This is coming to a computer screen near you pretty soon. Under the emerging agreement between book copyright holders and Google, authors will effectively lose their “moral rights” to determine the ways in which their work is used online. Once they, or their publishers, have signed up to the Google deal, the use of ads as part of the online reading experience will be formalised. Writers – or more often their publishers – will get a cut of the ad revenue for books that are still in copyright, but they will not be able to determine whether or how those ads appear.

The so-called “free culture” movement and the tens of millions of people who regularly download copyright material without paying for it like to see the internet as a liberating force. They believe – either in theory or in practice – that creative works of all kinds belong to everyone and that the destruction of copyright is about the creation of a common global culture in which everyone has access to everything. What’s naive about this view is that it ignores a basic rule of contemporary life – follow the money.

There was a time, in its earlier days, when the internet operated as a largely non-commercial zone of exchange. In some respects, it still does. For the most part, however, it is now driven by money and that money is generated, overwhelmingly, from ads. We are talking about serious sums: Google has annual revenues of $5.5 billion (€4.23 billion) and made a profit of $1.4 billion (€1 billion) in the first three months of this year alone.

If, as internet idealists like to claim, information wants to be free, advertising wants to be ubiquitous. Like nature, it abhors a vacuum. Every space that is not endowed with a brand name is not just a waste but an abomination. Thus, large areas of life that were previously free of ads – clothing, sport – have had to acquire them.

One of the last frontiers is, oddly, that quaintly old-fashioned thing, the book. Books usually advertise themselves and often discreetly plug other works from the same author and/or publisher. Readers see them, however, as private spaces and resist any attempt to invade that privacy. As books and reading move online, however, this last frontier is being comprehensively crossed.

This is not a theoretical question. It is as immediate as next Tuesday week. May 5th is the deadline – the arbitrary, gun-to-the-head deadline – for writers around the world to opt in or out of the settlement reached in the New York courts between Google, the Authors Guild of America, and the Association of American Publishers.

This is a private settlement, negotiated in secret in one country, and it has yet to be debated or approved in open court. Yet, because both copyright law and the internet function globally, it affects almost every book published anywhere. Whether or not an Irish writer, for example, has been physically published in the US, he or she has a “US copyright interest” and is therefore part of the legal “class” covered by the settlement.

Thus, over the next few days, every author has to do one of two things. (Doing nothing is not an option – failure to act means that you are automatically assumed to be bound by the deal.) You can actively opt out (at www.googlebooksettlement.com), which means that you retain control over your own copyright and can sue Google if those rights are breached. Or you can opt in, which means that in return for a pathetic payment (most of the $125 million that Google is coughing up will go the lawyers – authors will get a measly $60 per book), Google can display large chunks of your work for free and sell downloads of the whole thing.

There’s a strong element of coercion here. No one outside the US has even been consulted. The assumption that you’ve opted in unless you’ve opted out is strikingly authoritarian. (It will also be very effective; most writers, publishers and agents seem either ignorant of the process or paralysed by indecision and confusion.) Opting out is deeply problematic. It is effectively impossible for any individual to take Google on in the courts, and even if someone tried, the courts might well tell them that they should have taken the offer that was on the table. And even opting in (which writers essentially have to do) gives an author access to revenue streams from downloads and ads, but not the direct power to, for example, decide that she doesn’t want her sex scenes adorned with messages from Ann Summers or Durex.

Internet idealists need to wake up to the reality that the web’s assault on copyright isn’t a blow for creative freedom. It is hitting at one of the forces that has sustained the idea of a free culture – the ability of artists to make decisions about the use of their work. And it is inserting advertising into the very spaces in which we are supposed to be able to think freely, without being urged to spend freely while we’re at it.