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Ursula K. Le Guin, Google, and the Economics of Authorship

December 23, 2009.  We appreciate Ursula K. Le Guin’s many years of membership and regret that she has chosen to resign from the Guild. We are open and eager to discuss this matter with her at any time.

In many respects, we agree with Ms. Le Guin.  We hold the principles of copyright to be fundamental — they are bedrock principles for the Authors Guild and the economics of authorship.  That’s why we sued Google in the first place.

It would therefore have been deeply satisfying, on many levels, to litigate our case to the end and win, enjoining Google from scanning books and forcing it to destroy the scans it had made. It also would have been irresponsible, once a path to a satisfactory settlement became available.

Litigation, particularly litigation over the bounds of fair use, involves risk. Some critics of the settlement wrongly dismiss that risk, but the fact is that we certainly could have lost the case. Losing would have meant that anyone, not just Google, could have digitized copyright protected books and made them available through search engines. Since creating a search engine is rather simple, anyone with a website — Civil War buffs, science fiction fans, medical information providers — would then have been empowered to start the uncontrolled scanning of books and the display of "snippets." Authors would have no say in those uses and no control over the security of those scans. The damage to copyright protection would have been incalculable.

The lessons of recent history are clear:  when digital and online technologies meet traditional media, traditional media generally wind up gutted. Constructive engagement — in this case turning Google’s infringement to our advantage — is sometimes the only realistic solution.  Google’s scanning project won’t be the only battlefield, there are countless challenges ahead. We need the institutional resources to deal with those challenges. We need the Book Rights Registry, our ASCAP, as desperately as the music industry needed its with the advent of radio.

The settlement is a good one for authors. It will open up new streams of revenues for authors from out-of-print books, books that provide no income to authors now. The settlement allows authors to decide whether, when and to what extent to make their works available through Google. In an increasingly challenging online environment, authors need every bit of income they can earn.