Rounding the bend toward the finish line in college I found myself with a few electives to burn. Although sci-fi was not and is not a passion of mine, I decided to take a science-fiction survey course because I knew there were good writers working in the genre. Over the course of the semester we read through a stack of classics — some hard science, some soft sci-fi — and I genuinely enjoyed them all.
While I don’t remember the titles of many of the books (I’m terrible with titles), we covered the names anyone would know: Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. I remember Ms. Le Guin particularly because her unusual, rhythmic name somehow matched her powerful prose style.
As regular readers know, I am interested in the proposed Google Books Settlement with the Author’s Guild (now GBS 2.0) — a lawsuit so grievously damaging to existing copyright law that it was challenged and defeated in its original incarnation by the U.S. Justice Department. For this reason, it was with interest that I read yesterday that Ms. Le Guin resigned from the Author’s Guild last week, after thirty-six years:
My letter of resignation from the Authors Guild
18 December 2009
To Whom it may concern at the Authors Guild:
I have been a member of the Authors Guild since 1972.
At no time during those thirty-seven years was I able to attend the functions, parties, and so forth offered by the Guild to members who happen to live on the other side of the continent. I have naturally resented this geographical discrimination, reflected also in the officership of the Guild, always almost all Easterners. But it was a petty gripe when I compared it to my gratitude to the Guild for the work you were doing in defending writers’ rights. I went on paying top dues and thought it worth it.
And now you have sold us down the river.
I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.
So, after being a loyal if invisible member for so long, I am resigning from the Guild. I am, however, retaining membership in the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, both of which opposed the “Google settlement.” They don’t have your clout, but their judgment, I think, is sounder, and their courage greater.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Although I have neither the standing nor reputation of Ms. Le Guin, her sentiments are mine. The heart of the matter in the Google Books case is copyright law, and in that respect the Authors Guild’s failure has been total. Rather than strengthen the sole legal standing upon which all of its members’ careers and legal rights rest, the Authors Guild has (as all bureaucracies do) proposed trading the rights of its members for a pitiful and doomed lunge at power and prestige.
Ms. Le Guin is quite accurate in noting that the Authors Guild did all this without any compelling reason. They are simply granting Google broad (and in my view illegal) copyright permissions against the best interests of their own membership. The only thing standing in the way of this embarrassment is a judge’s opinion.
On the heels of a recent conversation I understand that there is a contemporary belief that copyright law is antiquated, if not inherently contrary to the digital age. Apart from my own resistance to such arguments, it seems highly unlikely to me that Google as a corporation feels the same way about its own copyrights. Were I to begin scanning and making available documents to which Google holds copyright, I find it very difficult to imagine that I would not soon be the recipient of a forceful cease-and-desist letter, if not notice of an actual intent to sue for damages.
To the extent that Google and the Authors Guild are determined to weaken copyright law for individuals, while strengthening the right of corporations to appropriate copyrights first and answer questions later, I can only hope that the courts will see the fallacy of this proposal. I tend to believe, however, that the courts will defer to the settlement agreement as a means of punting the issue back to the legislature for clarification — during which time Google will lock up the franchise that it has been seeking all these years. (I was pleased to read that Google had recently suffered defeat in the French courts.)
If the proposed amended settlement is to be derailed, I honestly believe the impetus will come from individual copyright holders, and in particular writers of note. I welcome Ms. Le Guin’s defection from the Authors Guild’s ranks, and I hope other notable authors will take a stand in the few weeks that remain before the onrushing 2/19 court date.
– Mark Barrett