GBS: Another Darnton Exchange in the NYRB

This one is hot off the presses—very hot. It makes reference to Google’s recent moves in China; that news is only a week old. Members of the of the Authors Guild’s executive board, led by Roy Blount, wrote a letter in defense of the settlement, to correct some of Robert Darton’s “fundamental errors” in his essays for the New York Review of Books:

This basic misunderstanding seems to motivate Mr. Darnton’s most sweeping warnings, such as his conjecture that the settlement “looked likely to determine the digital future for all of us.”

On the contrary, out-of-print books are not destined to shape our digital future. Lost in the discussion is one cardinal fact: the current marketplace for these books is, by definition, nil. The great promise of the settlement is to create a resource that would otherwise not exist. …

Mr. Darnton suggests that the Authors Guild will “draw income” from the settlement. Not a penny—not now, not ever. (Countless authors, however, will receive checks in the mail as their out-of-print books, some long forgotten, come back to life.)

Mr. Darnton has put forward a variety of scenarios for digitizing out-of-print books, some more realistic than others, some admittedly utopian. They tend to require acts of Congress.

The Google settlement should not be weighed against these dreamy alternative futures. It resolves a pressing legal dispute in a manner that will work a great good for readers, while protecting the rights of authors. Every college and university will have free access to a collection of English-language works matching or exceeding that of Mr. Darnton’s at Harvard. So will public libraries. Everyone concerned with the place of books in our culture should welcome that.

Darnton replies:

Because Google is a powerful monopoly, it could charge monopolistic prices, and it could abuse its exclusive control of its databases in other ways, including violations of the privacy of its customers. Even if the current directors of Google remain faithful to their slogan, “Don’t be evil,” they might be replaced in the future by businessmen without a similar commitment to the public good. My criticism of the ASA is not directed against Google. On the contrary, it is meant to make the most of Google’s entrepreneurial energy and technological wizardry while preventing abuses by subjecting Google Book Search to the control of public authorities.

According to the solution I propose, Google and the rightsholders could profit from the sale of access to a separate digital database of books currently in print. All the other books would constitute a national digital library available to everyone, free of charge. Any author of an out-of-print but in-copyright book could opt out of this arrangement, and authors who accepted it would be able to realize a goal that is the highest priority for many of them: not so much to make money as to reach readers. Instead of lying in libraries unavailable to the great majority of the reading public, their works would take on new life, thanks to free access in a democratized digital realm.

I did not accuse the Authors Guild of trying to make money from the settlement. Instead, I expressed regret that the Book Rights Registry, which is to distribute the income generated by Google Book Search, will be composed only of representatives of authors and editors, who have an interest in maximizing that income by increasing the price of the institutional subscription. The Registry will not contain anyone to represent the interests of libraries or readers. Far from being aimed at the welfare of the reading public or the public in general, the settlement is a commercial deal negotiated privately by parties with a vested interest in its outcome.