The New Luddites

[Update: I’m not entirely sure I still agree with this post. This was written some time ago, before Google became, well, Google. I still think the Author’s Guild was being ridiculous, but I’m no longer sure Google’s motives were benign. I do still agree with this bit though: Writing is participating in something bigger than you. It’s a contribution to the body of humanity’s knowledge and I think authors ought to respect that.

This post, along with a few others, is from the time before luxagraf was a travel blog. Back then it was just sort of a place for me to spout off on things I care about, in this case books. Consider yourself warned

It might just be what I happen to read, but the big topic of late on this here internet seems to the Author’s Guild lawsuit against Google. For those that haven’t heard, the Author’s Guild has brought a class action lawsuit against Google to try and stop Google from indexing scanned books. I am a writer and I make about half of my income from writing (the other half comes from programming) so I have a personal interest in the outcome of this lawsuit. That said, I really wish it wasn’t happening. I really wish that we weren’t so tied to money that it has come to this. Are writers, authors, and members of the guild, to say nothing of the music industry, really this stupid?

Here’s the thing in plain English. Google wants to scan and index hundreds of thousands of copyrighted books, magazines and newspapers. Google understands that many authors might not want this to happen. They have thus provided an opt-out program. They set a deadline for this offer. Several authors protested the existence of the deadline, saying the opt-out should be available at any time. Essentially they’re asking Google to expend the effort to index their work and then waste that effort and discard it. That doesn’t even begin to make sense to me. If these authors are so concerned with their copyrights they out to be on the ball about and able to meet a deadline.

The irony is of course that the Authors Guild is suing on behalf of all their members (I.e. an opt out style), which in essence is the very thing they’re trying to stop Google from doing. To the best of my knowledge there is no way for a member of the Authors Guild to opt out. At least Google gives you the option.

But the bigger issue is why do these writers care at all? Isn’t being indexed by Google in fact a good thing? Won’t that open an avenue for more people to discover their work? Such was my initial reaction, nicely and perhaps most eloquently expounded by Tim O’Reilly in a recent NYTimes op/ed piece:

A search engine for books will be revolutionary in its benefits. Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors than copyright infringement, or even outright piracy. While publishers invest in each of their books, they depend on bestsellers to keep afloat. They typically throw their products into the market to see what sticks and cease supporting what doesn’t, so an author has had just one chance to reach readers. Until now.

Google promises an alternative to the obscurity imposed on most books. It makes that great corpus of less-than-bestsellers accessible to all. By pointing to a huge body of print works online, Google will offer a way to promote books that publishers have thrown away, creating an opportunity for readers to track them down and buy them.

Now that just plain makes sense. So who objects to this and on what grounds? I’ve spent two days now digging around on Google (yes the irony is steak knife thick in my house) trying to figure out why these writers are opposed to Google scanning their work. And why the Author’s Guild doesn’t mind Google indexing the content of their website…

The argument, as best as I can follow it, seems to be that Google will be profiting and the authors will not directly. But as O’Reilly and others point out, that just isn’t true. So what then? Why oppose this. The Author’s Guild website (I refuse to link to it) talks a lot about people stealing my work and all the money I will be losing from that. So is Google going to profit off these works? Well that depends how you look at it. In some sense yes they are; they will of course do their usual ads amongst content to generate revenue. But I think the argument can be made that the success of the ads rest more on Google’s service than on the individual works being indexed. That is, what will draw people in is the fact that Google is doing this; Google makes the service available. In other words, I think Google’s name is a bigger draw than the authors themselves. I think Google could generate a handsome profit just working with public domain works.

This is the point at which I apparently part ways with a number of authors. I wholeheartedly agree with O’Reilly, and desperately hope that Google wins this suit. I would love to see some of my favorite authors raised out of obscurity, Frank Stanford, Bernadette Mayer; I could point out great overlooked writers all day long. Most of their works are out of print and the publishing rights in the hands of people who either don’t want to or can’t afford to bring them out in print again. By indexing these works Google can hopefully introduce more people to their words. And that’s the point of writing right? Communication? Or is it only about the money these days? Frankly I think writers ought to get down on their hands and knees and thank god that they live in the only century in the history of man where they can feed themselves by writing. And don’t even try to say that’s because copyright laws protect their work. It’s because of the printing press and all the other technologies that have enabled the cheap production of printed books, not a bunch of laws written three centuries ago.

See, I write for webmonkey, which is owned by, which is owned by Lycos, which I believe is owned by someone else, who may in fact be owned by someone else. It’s entirely possible that the chain is infinite. I write in a situation of built-in, absolutely guaranteed obscurity. The tiniest plankton in a vast ocean of money. The toilets seats in Lycos’ office probably cost more than I do. Certainly no one at Lycos is sitting around thinking about how they can get my articles out to a wider audience. And that’s fine, I don’t expect them to, the articles have a limited audience by their very subject matter. It’s entirely possible that my Dad is the only one who actually goes out and finds them. Most people that write me tend to start off saying, hey I stumbled across your article the other day, or I was search for __ and ran across your article. In other words most people find me because of Google or other search engines.

Now this brings us to an interesting thing. Sometimes I forget what I wrote, so I go look for it again. Unfortunately Webmonkey’s search powers are, um, well, pathetic. So I often have to Google a title to even find out the url so I can reread it. But when I do these searches interesting things happen. It turns out that a lot of sites reprint webmonkey articles. Some of them are probably within fair use guidelines, some of them are not. At first I was a little disturbed by this discovery. After all these people are earning ad revenue off of my writing. Of course my writing is in fact owned by Lycos, so I really have no claim or very little claim at best. Not enough money to worry about. But what if it were? Major print magazines pay in the neighborhood of a dollar or two per word, sometimes even more. But let’s say for instance that my 3000 word article netted me $6000. Not only would my bank account be in much better shape (though the lump in the mattress might be a bit awkward for sleeping), I would in fact be even less concerned with other sites reprinting my work without compensating me. Only one site irritates me because it’s trying to pass of my code as the authors own, but whatever, it happens. Move on.

I guess the question we have come down to is how much compensation is enough? And along with that comes larger questions, am I being paid for the writing, that is the act of writing, or am I being paid for the words I write? Do I own the act of writing or the words I’ve written? I don’t know that anyone can own words. The whole notion of ownership seems a non-sequitur and a logical paradox… in the end I don’t own the language, so what do I own—the order of the words? It’s a labyrinth of circular logic. But I don’t see the harm in Google indexing them and making them available to a wider audience.

In fact I think that Google’s plan is wonderful and I wish they would go ahead and skip the authors that are against it and just use my stuff instead. I’d love to land ahead of some people in the old search rankings. I already see the upside of being reprinted. I’ve gotten several jobs based on the exposure I receive just from webmonkey reprinting them. In fact, averaged out, I would say each article I’ve written has led to at least one writing or programming gig. Exposure is a good thing. Never a bad thing.

Opponents of the Google plan claim that Google does not have the right to index the content. Probably these writers are also behind the Aerospace industries recent drive to start charging model airplane manufacturers for using actual diagrams to build scale models. I think both claims are insane. No one is trying to pass off your work as his or her own. Google is of course a company and companies make money, that’s what they do, so I’m not so naive as to think that Google’s motivations are pure. That said, I don’t care what Google’s motivations are, I think the idea is wonderful, the exposure helpful to both authors and readers.

See the thing is, without readers you aren’t going to get any money whatsoever. This, as my friend likes to say, equals bad. Writers dream of living off their writing. Money is an unfortunate motivator, but a motivator nonetheless. I started writing for Webmonkey for the money. The idea of getting paid to write was intoxicating. But something funny happened along the way, I found that I got to meet lots of great people, and help them solve little programming problems. To this day I have only had one bit of negative feedback out of the 4000+ people that have contacted me over the years. And though I might sometimes be slow to respond, I do enjoy solving problems for people. And yes to money may still be a motivation, but it’s not the only one, I have fun writing and I have fun responding to people. This might sound really lame, but it means a lot to me when people take the time to comment on something I’ve written, even if that something is a dry technical article on computer programming.

Writing is participating in something bigger than you. It’s a contribution to the body of humanity’s knowledge and I think authors ought to respect that. I have friends that are far better writers than I with books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble and they have never seen a dime. The fact that you could even make money writing would come as a shock to some of them. The Authors Guild is not acting on their behalf, it is not acting on my behalf, it’s acting on the behalf of selfish, wealthy writers whose words the world would be better off losing anyway. My message to them is simple. Stop writing and become a banker, you’re wasting the world’s time and effort. My message to Google is, go forth, index all you want, give away pdfs if you want, just don’t index the aforementioned writers, they don’t deserve to be found, let them drift off into obscurity where they belong. I look forward to seeing their remaindered copies in the dollar bin.


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