GBS: Ursula Le Guin NewsHour Interview

Ursula Le Guin was recently interviewed for the PBS NewsHour Art Beat blog. Audio and a transcript are available on the PBS web site. One substantial segment of the interview concerned the Google Books settlement:

JEFFREY BROWN: You recently spoke out pretty strongly on the whole situation with Google, Google’s attempt to scan and sell millions of books and you submitted a position to the judge who is looking at this.

URSULA LE GUIN: What I was objecting to was what’s called the Google Book settlement, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But explain, what is it that you worry about here?

URSULA LE GUIN: Oh goodness, it’s so complicated, Jeff. It’s such a huge — the settlement itself is about the length of the Holy Bible, and very few people can even read through it. I think to put it very crudely my main major objection is that a small group of writers led by the Authors Guild made a class action suit and then settled it, and then they are being allowed to speak for all writers — academic writers, journalists, freelancers like me — and the settlement they made is not satisfactory to most of us.


URSULA LE GUIN: Because it will allow Google to — actually as the head of our copyright office remarked — to an end run around copyright. It also allows a corporation to kind of re-write the rules such as copyright, which ought to be controlled firmly by the government. You know how Disney got to the government and got them to re-write copyright law to the extent of extending it to 70 years so that Disney could keep Mickey Mouse? That’s what we’ve got to kind of protect, is that corporations should not be allowed to write the rules that protects both writers and readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course it’s interesting, I mean, the dream here of course is an old one, right, of giving more people access to information, creating this global library, right?

URSULA LE GUIN: That’s right. And that library, that is my dream too. It should be a public library. It should be the Library of Congress extended through this immense field of digitalizing sort of everything we have, and it’s not just information. It’s art, too. What I write is not information. I write fiction. It doesn’t inform anybody of anything. But it has its value. And it gets forgotten in all this talk about information should be free, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it has split the world of writers?

URSULA LE GUIN: I don’t know that it has. I’m afraid an awful lot of writers have not really informed themselves. You know, we tend to be sort of busy doing our writing and sort of feeling that if we belong to a group like Authors Guild or something, that they’ll look after it and sort of see to it that our rights aren’t infringed to the point where we can’t make a living any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well we’ll follow that. I think the next step, I think it’s next week is the judge has the next hearing on this.


The very concept of ANY “universal library” requires massive copyright violation. It means every author will be forced to join under the library’s terms, like it or not. I’m completely against the idea. It’s not like people are reading, or can read, the vast majority of material available to them even without a “universal library.” And the net enables them to find hard copies to ILL on Worldcat (multi-library search service), to buy on (multi-meta-bookseller search), and so forth. I do research professionally, have done it for many years, and have no problem with the lack of a “universal library.”

Also, the Google scans and database of public-domain books are utterly crap quality.

The goal of a comprehensive library has been an important part of U.S. copyright law for many years: that’s what the deposit requirement is all about.

I have deposited copies of all my books with the Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office, as is customary. The US Copyright Office requires two copies of the best edition of each book for registration, and the Library of Congress also requires one copy for participation in their cataloging program. I have been told that after the copyright is registered, the Copyright Office passes its copies along to the Library of Congress. Meaning the Library of Congress ends up with three copies of almost every book published in the US.

I have also been told that long ago the Library of Congress ran out of room to keep every book they receive. Therefore, they only keep those they judge worthy of inclusion in the national library. I have also been told that various Congressional representatives are allowed to have their staffs choose from extra copies, and books judged unworthy to keep in the national library, to give to libraries in the states they represent.

This seems like a perfectly good system to me.

It is, however, not a universal library. It is selective. And it does not include any books published outside the US, unless the Library of Congress acquires them by some means other than the customary deposits by US publishers.

I do not have any problem with giving a few hard copies of books to my national library, or with selling hard copies to other libraries. I do not have a problem with any library setting out to acquire every book in print everywhere—IF they purchase legitimate copies of those books WITHOUT making any copies to give away to patrons.

However, you’ve made me define this: The concept of a “universal library” as defined by Google and some altrustic organizations, completely munges the concepts of loaning books with publishing e-copies. Making copies is publication. If everyone could get e-copies of my books free I’d soon be out of business. (And also if everyone could get hard copies of them free, the difference being that none of these entities would spend the money to print the hard copies.) I already have enough trouble with my prospective customers constantly telling each other on b-boards not to buy any books, just interlibary loan them and photocopy them. Free e-books would be a huge difference in scale and loss of revenues: I’d simply have to give up publishing and writing.

I have absolutely zero desire to contribute my work free to the benefit of readers. Most of them earn more money than I do. Nor will I invest substantial amounts of my money for no return. That would be one-way socialism. If my readers need information (and entertainment), well, I need housing, groceries, clothing, dental care, etc. I flatly refuse to become a member of a slave class. If I don’t get paid fairly for writing and publishing work, I will find another profession entirely.

And again: Free e-copies “loaned” all over the place means no revenues. Look, everyone copies e-books. I don’t publish them, and I refuse to let anyone else do so on my behalf. Libraries, Google, or anyone. Yes, people can pirate hard copies, but it’s harder, so they focus more on e-books when they can get them. Repugnant as it is, I spent some time observing pirate e-groups and b-boards just to find out what they do and why.

I don’t give a damn about contributing to society if it means I can’t make a living.

Fran Lavolta Press

The selectivity of the current deposit system stems from the costs and space required for storage. But there’s a long history both of deposit being an ambition at creating a comprehensive collection of published books and of deposit being not just “customary” but legally mandatory.

Also, making copies is not publication. The U.S. Copyright Act defines “publication” as:

“Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.

Similarly, the right to “reproduce the copyrighted work in copies” and the right to “distribute copies of the work … to the public” are distinct rights under the act.

What I mean is:

With the current level of DRM, and likely the future level, any library, search engine, publisher, or other entity displaying, lending, or renting an e-copy of a work is effectively giving it away to one person, who can then give it away to anyone and everyone else they wish. Which means free copies will eventually be so widely distributed that authors and publishers needing to make any money from their work, whether it supplies their full income or not, might as well quit bothering.

Likewise, if libraries or other entities store purely archival e-copies on servers with poor security. Sooner or later someone will probably hack some server and “release” the lot for “the good of the public.” Google probably has good security on their own servers, but I suspect the level of security at most libraries is poor.

Also, you may know this but many other people do not: Publishers spend large amounts of money on necessary services that improve books tremendously, including developmental editing, line editing, indexing, book design, cover design, page layout, sometimes fact checking, sometimes permissions work, sometimes language translation, and various aspects of marketing. I’ve worked for several midsize book and magazine publishers. I personally have had the job of rewriting subject experts’ work to the extent of being an unacknowledged coauthor, as well as training them in publishing procedures and in writing skills to use for future books. It makes a difference.

A significant amount of money is needed to support this system. Publishers are pinched right now and are squeezing their authors for perpetual e-rights (some of which they then just use for giveaways to market newer books and authors), They are also requiring the authors to do more marketing, to have manuscripts pre-edited before submission, and the like. Authors, in turn, are increasingly wondering if they have to do or pay for all this work, when they can publish the book themselves and list it on Amazon themselves, why they need publishers. So, there’s significant growth in self-publishing.

On the whole I think this is a good thing. But then, the authors have to make more money to pay editors, graphic artists, etc. Or they have to learn a large array of different publishing and business skills. Also basically a good thing for DIY types; but it’s very hard on people in the traditional mindset of “I’m just a writer, let other people take care of everything else” and “I’m a creative person, I just can’t understand business.”

Or else they produce dreck, a very common alternative. I spend an hour a day on b-boards explaining to yet more people how to get an ISBN, that a 40% discount means the retailer gets 40% off the cover price, not 60%, why their cover copy needs high contrast with the background, and many other such topics. Out of the goodness of my heart and for the sake of my community, but it gets very wearing to do it over and over.

But, if the publishing industry collapses because an e-book system has been set up that means no one gets paid enough to work at a professional level, we’ll have a few authors who work their tails off at a full-time job and doing their own editing, layout, etc., but mostly, oceans of dreck.

Oh yes—In case anyone thinks a system of amateur authors will be supported by editors, graphic artists, indexers, etc., eager to contribute free services: Many (if not most) self-publishers would absolutely love that. However, it very rarely happens, and never for the full component of necessary services. Having been an editor and a graphic artist, I can testify that sure, supporting other people’s work can be a rewarding job. But not so rewarding that the vast majority of people with professional skills would contribute all those weeks of work for free.