Leggo my ego.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 17 2005 6:59 AM

Leggo My Ego

Google Print and the other culture war.

(Continued from Page 1)

But the law would be stupid to give property owners that right. Imagine how terrible maps would be if you had to negotiate with every landowner in the United States to publish the Rand McNally Road Atlas. Maps might still exist, but they'd be expensive and incomplete. Property owners might think they'd individually benefit, but collectively they would lose out—a classic collective action problem. There just wouldn't really be maps in the sense we think of today.

The critical point is this: Just as maps do not compete with or replace property, neither do book searches replace books. Both are just tools for finding what is otherwise hard to find. And if we really want to have true, comprehensive book searches, we cannot require that every author's permission be individually sought out.  The book search engines that emerge would be a shadow of the real thing, just as a negotiated map would be a lousy one. Studies suggest that millions of out-of-print books are of unclear copyright status, and Google estimates that relying solely on books provided by publishers and authors will yield only 20% of the books in existence. Not only might it be difficult to get permission. (At least with real property we know who the owners are.) But there are just too many books with owners who are hard or impossible to find—"orphan works."

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Each of those is a hole in the "map," and a shame.

What's at stake in a comprehensive book search? In a word, authorial welfare. It is true that once authors are famous and successful, control becomes more important than exposure. But authors don't know in advance that fame is going to happen. If we imagined a hypothetical bargain between all the nation's potential and future authors, I think they'd agree to put exposure first—and make book searches permissible. From that original position, a system making it easier to find your work is preferable to the system we have now, namely reviews, word of mouth, and marketing campaigns. And while searches will never displace these means entirely, we have seen that searches can help make eccentric bloggers as popular as newspaper columnists.

While I've stressed the tension between exposure and control, it's not if the ideal is no authorial control.  What we want is the right balance.  The Google Print booksearch, for example, gives copyright owners an "opt-out."  As on the web, if you don't want to be searchable, you don't have to be.  If you're really embarrassed about your first novel, you can tell Google, and make it unfindable. That's not enough for some, like the Author's Guild, who demand that the owner give permission before Google acts, not vice-versa.  But with devices with opt-outs—which may be critical to Google's fate in court—we can respect authorial wishes without making everyone's work hard to find.

We must remember, looking to the future, that  books, as a medium, face competition. If books are too hard to find relative to other media, all authors of books lose out, and authors of searchable media like the Web, win. And that's too bad for those who love books—those who still like a slow read better than the blustery urgency of blogs.

I believe that everyone who considers themselves an author or an author's advocate should take a deep breath and, at least this time, praise Google Print. In the end, it is just a search, not a replacement product. We readers need help finding what exists, and we authors also need help being found. There is here, as anywhere, such a thing as too much control. It may be time for the offline media to learn something from online media—namely, the virtues of letting go.