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[Daniel Akst] Digital books eat Google dominance

Recently a family friend, knowing that I write books, asked how she could copyright her daughter’s poetry. For the record, the girl is 13. My answer ― don’t worry about it ― was the same one I give to writers fretful over Google’s plans to digitize the world’s books. Go ahead, Google. Scan my out-of-print works, now otherwise available for a penny (plus shipping) from used-book sellers on the Internet.

What matters to me is realizing the dream of a library containing all the world’s learning ― and having access everywhere, at all times. Given this prospect, why worry that somebody might be reading a long-forgotten out-of-print work without paying? Writers should have such troubles! But we won’t have them anytime soon. Recently, a federal judge, having heard many vociferous objections, rejected the settlement of a lawsuit by authors and publishers against Google ― a settlement that, warts and all, would have let the great library go forward.

Although I regard delay as tragic ― and some of the protests of my fellow scribes as absurd ― I have to admit: The judge was right. The settlement would have undermined copyright law and given Google too much power. The dream of a universal library will have to wait for an act of Congress, which can make the necessary statutory changes. If all parties get together, it might even happen in my lifetime.

But while authors and publishers have been focused on Google, a much greater upheaval threatens to turn publishing upside down, and copyright along with it. It’s clear now that, Google or no Google, books are going digital.

Like music before them, they may be sold at first with some kind of copy protection, but that will soon fall away, and piracy will flourish. At the very least, the rise of digital books will seriously undermine some of the copyright protections writers and publishers were at such pains to safeguard in the Google case. Then again, it’s not clear that publishers as we know them will survive the change (which will certainly kill most brick-and-mortar bookstores).

Authors of blockbusters ― the books that pay most of the bills in modern publishing ― will self-publish. Why will famous writers like Stephen King need publishers when they can distribute their works with the click of a mouse ― and keep the proceeds? Other sources of publishing income are also threatened. Works whose copyrights have expired ― Dickens and the like ― are already free online. More recent works published before the digital revolution may also break free, since contracts back then didn’t cover digital rights.

Like big record labels, big publishers may be gradually supplanted by smaller firms, or none at all. Self-publishing could well come to predominate, leaving writers in the position of casting their own works onto the digital waters ― and hoping people pay.

To the extent publishers endure, it may be in a role akin to movie studios, coordinating and bankrolling the talent required to make the new kinds of multimedia books that reading on tablets will call forth.

One other thing: A profusion of free reading material will probably push down the price of competing digital books, which is mostly good for readers. But it also means that certain kinds of worthwhile books won’t get written, because writers will find it hard to make money from them.

Either way, the coming changes will be big ― so big that when our friend’s 13-year-old grows up, authors and publishers may someday wonder what on Earth all that Google fuss was about.

By Daniel Akst

Daniel Akst, a columnist for Newsday, is the author of “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” from Penguin Press. ― Ed.


(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)