Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff » How Google Stole the Work of Millions of Authors

How Google Stole the Work of Millions of Authors

9 February 2016

From the President of the Authors Guild via The Wall Street Journal:

Last week publishers, copyright experts and other supporters filed amicus briefs petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the copyright-infringement case against Google brought by the Authors Guild. The court’s decision will determine how and whether the rights and livelihood of writers are protected in the future.

If you type, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” into Google’s search box, the text and author will be identified for you in a matter of seconds. This is not because Google has ranks of English majors waiting at the ready, but because, over a decade ago, Google made an agreement with a number of great libraries to make digital copies of every book they owned.

In 2004 Google sent its moving vans to the libraries and carted off some 20 million books. It copied them all, including books in copyright and books not covered by copyright. It asked no authors or publishers for permission, and it offered no compensation for their use—although in compensation to the libraries Google gave them digital copies of the scanned books.

The Authors Guild challenged what Google was doing in Authors Guild v. Google, the copyright-infringement case first brought in 2005 and recently decided on appeal to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. In October the court ruled that Google was protected by the doctrine of fair use when it copied the books—partly because it only made limited samples from copyright material available to the public, and partly because the court found that making the books available to an electronic search was “transformative.”

. . . .

It’s useful here to consider that Google reported revenue of nearly $75 billion in 2015. Last year, an Authors Guild survey on writers’ annual incomes since 2009 showed a 67% decline for authors with 15 or more years of experience. Most respondents, if they were to live only on their writing income, would be below the poverty line.

Accomplished writers are important to us. They provide the intellectual core of our culture, and as a society we need their work, their thoughts and their voices. We can’t allow their work to be taken without compensation by technology giants merely because these giants have the capability to do so.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Abel and others for the tip.

Since most publishing contracts continue for the life of the copyright, PG wonders if the real beneficiaries of any Authors Guild victory over Google wouldn’t be the publishers, who receive the large majority of any revenue a book generates.

Perhaps the Wall Street Journal made a typo and the author of this piece was president of the Publishers Guild instead of the Authors Guild. An op-ed from the viewpoint of authors might be titled, How Big Publishing Stole the Work of Millions of Authors.

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff

55 Comments to “How Google Stole the Work of Millions of Authors”

  1. “How Big Publishing Stole and Continues to Steal the Work of Millions of Authors.”

    There. Fixed it for you.

  2. “Last year, an Authors Guild survey on writers’ annual incomes since 2009 showed a 67% decline for authors with 15 or more years of experience.”

    I’m sure that was due to Google’s making books more discoverable on that interweb thingy.

    • I’ve bought several print books after Google showed me the scanned version when I did a web search for some arcane topic.

      Of course, I had to buy them used, because the publisher let them go out of print. So the author didn’t make one cent as a result.

      • To be honest, I am confused. I use Google Books to search the contents of books for specific questions of this and that and I can’t recall ever encountering an entire book being made available. Only previews. Mind you, they are good-sized previews, but, every fifth page or so is missing. This has made the Books function a wonderful way to find books I want to buy, aka, “aiding discoverability”; and for those books available for purchase links are provided to both new and used copies.

        If publishers and authors want there to be alternatives to Amazon for discover ability, here’s one. Why are they complaining? Are there really any in-print books so reproduced in their entirety? Are publishers trying to keep electronic copies of out-of-IP books off the Internet entirely? If so, shame on them. They don’t own the textual heritage of our entire planet for all time.

    • Yeah, I read that and immediately thought “correlation does not imply causation.” 🙂

  3. “Google reported revenue of nearly $75 billion in 2015. Last year, an Authors Guild survey on writers’ annual incomes since 2009 showed a 67% decline for authors with 15 or more years of experience.”

    So what’s the argument here? Google is making loads of money money from the hard work of authors? Or maybe the argument is Google is stealing the money of poor authors? Either way, the article should have connected the dots and made the argument it is insinuating.

    One common fallacy is to confuse correlation with causation. It rained yesterday and I lost my job is different from it rained yesterday therefore, I lost my job.

    And by the way, if I want to read Shakespeare or James Patterson, a google search just won’t do. But the search may help me decide if I want to buy my own copy of a work.

    • @ Jessy

      “And by the way, if I want to read Shakespeare or James Patterson, a google search just won’t do. But the search may help me decide if I want to buy my own copy of a work.”

      LOL. It kills me when I see so many public-domain books for sale for money — on Amazon and elsewhere. (E.g. Machiavelli, Twain, Verne, Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte, Sun Tzu, et al.)

      Gotta say “Good for the scammers!” If people are so stupid as to pay money for something they can easily get for free, more power to those making money off the Stupids.

      Hey, mebbe I should look into this revenue stream… 🙂

      • ETA: I’m talking about online e-books here. Go to Project Gutenberg for freebies.

        • Gutenberg books are often poorly formatted, and sometimes have a lot of typos and other OCR errors. The time I’d need to fix the formatting and typos is worth more than $0.99.

          So I have no problem paying a modest amount for them, if the publisher has fixed those problems for me.

          • +1

          • @ Edward

            It’s been my experience that scanned books at Gutenberg are a much better choice than OCR’d ones. Of course, Gutenberg is a non-profit, so funds for properly OCR’ing books are probably scarce.

            • Yes. There are a number of cases where I’ve downloaded a multi-megaybte scanned PDF, because the OCR-ed Kindle version was hard to read.

              But PDF is a lousy format for anything other than printing. It’s OK on a PC screen, but unreadable on a small tablet or phone, and often hard to read even on a large tablet.

          • Gutenberg books are often poorly formatted, and sometimes have a lot of typos and other OCR errors.

            Define “often” and “sometimes.” I have gotten at least 20 books from Project Gutenberg and have never had a problem. They have been at least as good as anything from traditional publishers.

        • Not saying you’re wrong, because a number of books out there are scanned pages from a PDF and they’re horrible, with some pages unreadable.

          I’ve got two books in a three-book series out about a Victorian murder. Two of them are readily available as PDFs, the third was published in one edition and difficult to find.

          In each case, I scanned the pages, proofread them, and cleaned up the woodcuts so they’re better than new. I didn’t do it to make money, but I thought it was cool to bring back something missing and damaged, and if someone else is really into the case, they’ll have something cool to play with.

      • It’s worth 99 cents to immediately have the book available on six of my devices without any work on my part. That may kill some. So be it.

  4. At this point, every press release from the Authors Guild should just begin with “We continue to be ridiculous”

    • Your being much too gentle with them. Everything from AG/AU/ABA/NYT and all the other little yapping lapdogs of the qig5 should start with:

      “While we still have our collective heads up our tailpipes and are breathing the fumes thus produced right from the source, we also believe that Amazon/Google/indie-self-pub is bad/evil because our masters tell us to say they are because …”

  5. It is odd, but in keeping with their track record, that the pretend Authors Guild fails to grasp the nature of copyright law, that it is about distribution of copies of the original or derivative works.

    All Google did was to read books into computers and create a database of “citations”. They did not distribute copies of any books nor is the end product a clear derivative of any single product.

    Two levels of the judicial system have found that what Google did falls within the bounds of fair use, which is a reasonable view of both indexing and extracting citations. Certainly nobody would be griping if they’d only done it for one book since Google’s database isn’t a substitute for the original and it is actually to the copyright holder’s benefit to be included in Google’s database.

    So their entire case rests on the sheer scope of the operation, that what is legal to do once is illegal done millions of times.
    (The real reason, of course, is the old bugaboo that “somebody/something read the book without paying us!”)

    I doubt the SCOTUS is going to be any more receptive than the lower courts since they have long been supportive of fair use innovations (Aerio notwithstanding).

    Long odds, right?

    • The examples in the Wikipedia article all suggest that the court rulings have been well within the bounds of precedent, especially on the transformative asoect:


      A whole big waste of time and money that would have been better spent fighting toxic publisher contracts.

    • Google has done the WORK.

      They send out the cars – to take the photos.

      They scanned millions of books – with no help from the publishers.

      They wrote the software and continue to improve it.

      They did the WORK. Improving the world takes work. Can you imagine a world without googling?

      The reactionaries, like AU, don’t do the work. They get in the way of the work getting done. They deliberately impede progress. ‘I have mine, you don’t get into the club’ is their implied motto.

      Even in China, this doesn’t work for long. Learned helplessness can be unlearned.

      • Google did the WORK like a typist does the WORK. The author, who CREATED the work, got nothing.

        • “The author, who CREATED the work, got nothing.”

          Really? Nothing whats so ever?

          Google doesn’t let you read the books for free, neither does Google sell the books. What Google did was make them searchable — and help a researcher/reader find what book (and who wrote it) a quote or phrase may have come from.

          Then someone with that info could go look the book up and buy it (if the dang thing isn’t ‘out of print’ by the lazy publisher!) The writer gets ‘discovered’ all over again every time something they wrote gets ‘found’ by a Google search — which is a heck of a lot more than publishers do ‘for’ the writers in their little pens.

          I’m guessing you’re the type that thought the libraries shouldn’t have had index cards to aid you in finding the book you were looking for either …

      • Maybe the Authors Guild should read that old children’s story about “The Little Red Hen”. Google’s baked the bread, so they darned well get to eat it.

  6. Move over, ADS. GDS is joining you.

    • Forbes nails it, IMO. I especially like that they point out the reason for copyright law is NOT to maintain a revenue stream for anyone. That’s something too many people don’t get.

      • Exactly!

        The intended purpose of copyright was not to create an eternal revenue stream for authors and creators [or publishing companies, my addition], but to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” so that they could be enjoyed by as many people as possible, for the betterment of society.

  7. If they were to win, wonder who would receive most of the money, related info and control… authors or publishers?

    Seems likely they would suggest that The Authors Registry (see their description below) be the monitor, controller and “clearinghouse” for payments (and perhaps usage data) from Google. Interesting the emphasis they place on doing this for authors… as publishers would presumably want their much larger cut. No indication of whether publishers currently receive any of this, directly from the registry or indirectly from receiving authors.

    Both the guild and registry are co-resident at
    31 East 32nd Street, 7th Floor
    New York, NY 10016
    and the registry appears in the guild’s non-profit tax filing as being taxable as a corporation or trust. The registry’s site reports their commission to be 7.5 percent.

    If interested in seeing the tax filings, do a Google search on “nonprofit tax returns”, “not for profit tax filings”,or such and try some of the free search services for such. For what it’s worth, the guild shows up in non-profit tax filing searches, the registry does not. Different non-profit search services may return differing amounts of filings and details.

    “The Authors Registry is a not-for-profit clearinghouse for payments to authors, receiving royalties from organizations overseas and distributing them to U.S. authors. It was founded in 1995 by a consortium of U.S. authors’ organizations: The Authors Guild, The American Society of Journalists & Authors, the Dramatists Guild, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives. To date, the Authors Registry has distributed over $23,000,000 to authors in the United States.”

    The guild’s executive director appears to receive in the neighborhood of $200,000 compensation per year. Probably not unreasonable for a full time public face New York lawyer?

    Probably all carefully technically legal and audited, if not what naive civilians would expect. But interesting… and perhaps worth shining some light on.

  8. The Gilded Authors should have filed their case on Groundhog Day (the Bill Murray version). We’ve been around this merry-go-round before.

  9. It’s useful here to consider that Google reported revenue of nearly $75 billion in 2015. Last year, an Authors Guild survey on writers’ annual incomes since 2009 showed a 67% decline for authors with 15 or more years of experience.

    No, it is not useful. There is no reason for society to base its laws on how much money authors make. If they can’t make it as authors, they can do something else, just like everyone else.

    Authors aren’t making as much money as they would like because there are so many of them writing books. They are competing with each other, increasing supply, driving down prices, and lowering average earnings.

    If every author present in KDP today suddenly made $50,000 per year from books, there would be an immediate surge of new authors entering the market, and then the cycle would start all over again, with the AU complaining that authors don’t make enough money.

    • Authors aren’t making as much money as they would like…

      And tradpub authors aren’t making as much money as they would like, because they have signed contracts with disadvantageous terms.

  10. “… partly because the court found that making the books available to an electronic search was “transformative.””

    If this is a valid argument, then every pirate site that scans print books and sells them has a get-out-of-jail-free card. And yes, that hits publishers where they live, but it hits authors, too. I’m not sure you CAN hit publishers without hitting authors. (Although with the rise of indie publishing, it’s easy to hit authors WITHOUT hitting publishers. Either way, authors get screwed.)

    • And you shoot your logic in both feet again when you try to compare a Google search with pirates selling books they don’t own …

    • The way the books are used determines if it is transformative.

      There is a big difference between the way a book is used by Google, and the way it is used by pirates.

      It’s the results of the electronic search rather than the existence of any electronic search that makes it transformative.

  11. there are many parts of the google grab [I trust amz might have gone after it if google hadnt. ] Google made deals, money deals, with several u libraries admins. Though there was much high talk about ‘greater whatever’ for the whomever, it was money the libraries thought was a great deal for them. No one that Iknow had anissue with goog doing OP books. I personally wanted the old archeological and anthro and etc old old volumes, 4 inches thick, you started seeing showing up at library ‘toss’ sales. Those surveys and convos and cultural images etc were priceless.

    IMO, what brought down the wrath of can-can on goog was they and the libraries who wanted the money, did not ask living authors, agents for estates in which copyright was still in force, whether they would like to join their scheme.

    So suddenly authors found that not only did goog do scans [without spellchecks, often enough just images of pages, crooked, etc] of their works without a kiss, but also kept the scans of the authors’ works and would not share them with the author. For many, that might have been a great trade. But goog wanted to keep their scans to themselves and to run ads along authors’ works, that goog collected on, using authors’ works as bait… but not sharing ad revenues with authors either.

    As mentioned, there are MANY aspects to this whole affair, including authors eventually being able to ask via their pubs, that goog’s scans be limited to what goog calls ‘snippets.’ This was part of goog’s ‘defense’ in a way Im not clear on… but was negot by goog after they had first insisted they could use the whole of the whole.

    Somewhere along the line one of the honchos from goog made imo the error of saying aloud the old saw, better to ask forgiveness after, than ask permission before hand. It didnt help inspire confidence in goog’s increasingly parsed and shaped for publicity: ‘pure’ motives for doing the scans, which eventually boiled down to something resembling in my .02, ‘we’re doing it for the children.’

    So time went on and many many ins and outs and negotiations and claims and counterclaims, and a lot of old time authors didnt forget that goog began by claiming they would bring the whole of all books to all readers belonging to the whomever. But, goog, when pushed hard, backed off that. But many authors saw it as a fall back ploy, that goog may have had no intention of scanning and giving the whole of whatever to whomever. That their play was actually ad money, and a vibrant content made by others, to be the draw.

    I’m going to stop here in a minute, because there are so many episodes to this all, and it is far from over, it seems. Finally again when goog was pushed hard, goog said authors could opt out of their ‘scan scheme.’ Part of the issue was that many many authors had no idea their works had been taken [the authors owning rights to their own electronic scans, along with other digital rights belonging to the author] and goog’s opt out was considered swiss cheese as a result of goog themselves not having an able database at the time of the authors they scanned, nor they claimed, how to contact the bazillion. lol

    So goog set up this time consuming [to the author] way to opt out, wanting the usual citation, inc isbn, date of copyright, heirs and assigns if appropo, pages, addresses, phone numbers, editor’s, of publishers, whether op or whatever, and blah and more blah. So many authors dutifully ‘helped’ google to create an author database in detail that google had not bothered to make it appears.

    One more, ‘lastly’… goog then, under the gun, offered to make a payment of $60 per book, anthology, whatever they had scanned. Many authors had more than a dozen books, some many dozens of books. But, it seemed to me that even $600. or $1200 or $2400 was not the compensation many authors wanted. What would have been compenssation again, just my .02 was not money, but the scans being non proprietary… that the scans would belong to the authors and goog; that the author could have non-exclusive use of their own work in scanned form.

    To scan is not hard. But to have a machine that does high speed scan so fast your hair flies back, is outside most individual’s means.

    It could have, imo, been a partnership, but goog didnt want those pesky authors seemingly, any more than publishers want to hang with those pesky authors, without whose works, well… you know.

    just my .02 having been at the Gettysberg Address.

    • As far as I’m able to find, Google never claimed it would bring the whole of any book currently still under copyright to people. Even as far back as when they still called it “Google Print,” the year before the Authors Guild even filed its suit, they were saying that it would allow people to search in such books, and that’s all.

      Selling the entirety of still-under-copyright books was the Authors Guild‘s idea, it was shot down, and rightly so.

      • I hold as an eye and ear witness, lol…in certain negot. meetings and by knowing some of the principals for long and long, so to have heard the original intentions [which were many many] and proposals [which were and still are many many] from the Beginniiiiinnnngggng of Tiiiiiiimmmmmmme.

        For those not present at fish bowl [old mediation meeting term] Id also mention many authors did, along with their trad publishers, take nec steps to alert goog to take down their extensive ‘casts’ of the authors’ works.

        I’d add, many authors, Im familiar with [by no means ALL authors, but many many mainly from just being alive in pub for 48 years this year] were well aware of what was going on w goog’s and libs’ intentions long before AG.

        Quite a few authors who have their own reasons, pay quite a lot yearly to have insider newsletters that I think start around $300 annual, and some more. [PW by contrast, is dead fish wrapped in clay coat in comparison, way delayed as a newsmaker/ broadcaster of important changes/impulses/trends in the industry, and often imo homogenized news with much partial reportage, making the error of thinking there are only two sides to everything, lol]. And in the paid newsletters is where I often enough find the most accurate, incisive analyses of our industry of ALL kinds of publishers and authors, as well as the chisme that often has factual predictive force, as well as who said what, and one of the most charming areas, who was overheard to have said what.

        Im with authors who want to turn toward indie pub or be hybrid. If one heard/overheard how most authors are beheld by most trad pub higher ups, and the ‘plans’ for how to fillet the authors’ contracts ten different ways, and how naive the higher ups find authors in terms of their wishful thinking and projections of motives falsifying what pubs are really up to, evil or good, doesnt matter, how the business actually works at all 15 levels not as a trope of one, and how it has always locomoted for the last 30 years, … one would think many a trad pub exec wants only to harvest the babies [books] and leave the parents [authors] who carried the babies into being, dead on the floor.

        I find goog no different. They are a business just like amz and trad pubs. The “alien” will do, lol, whatever it has to to stay aliiiiiiive. That includes putting out misdirectives, purposeful chisme, carom shots, fly it over and see if it gets shot down with an angry ground to air missile manned by an author or group of whomever, give out mostly true, partly true, fully false press released, give out press releases that withhold critical info; use a code language which investors understand and authors mostly do not. I still do biz on a handshake with long term partners, but also know where the grasses are and the snakes in them. The snakes are very very clever about saying one thing in private which appears mostly true and saying quite another to the public that may have some truth to it. Or not.

        Media ploys used by big corp are a whole study in themselves. My exper personally? If youre not on site withbreaking news petty or critical, dont rely on media or internet to tell you what happened. The report will be shaped by two things: what the corp would like you to think/ feel [and wont mention what they wish to be suppressed by omitting to er ah mention certain items], and #2 the insights and analyses will only be as good as the journos ability –and funding– to be an investigative reporter AND a critical thinker who looks underneath, far underneath, about what is offered on the surface.

        My .02? Id still rather go hear and see than rely on the increasingly fragmented ‘broadcasts’ of partial fictions and shredded facts. About most anything within our reach.

  12. Roxana Robinson strikes again! And let’s remember, folks, she’s NOT a Special Snowflake. Because she said she isn’t. 🙂

  13. The first thoughts through my mind were “Whale Math”. Okay, it may be still out of context but you can see why.

    Let’s take things with no relevance, then state them together to try to make a powerful case. A tech company has been doing well and making money. The publishers are shrinking advances and hiding royalties. Conclusion: We should sue the tech company, so that we have enough pocket change to buy new pointy hats for when we sit in the corner and mope.

    In other news today: “The reduction of pirates sailing old wooden ships, the strong increase in global warming. Coincidence or just Monopoly?”

  14. Google earns a considerable amount of money for posting ads along with search results. If they are going to make money from posting portions of copyrighted material why should they not pay for that material?

    • You are welcome to demand that Google pay for giving everyone free advertising, but they are just as welcome to say no and simply stop “posting portions of copyrighted material”.

      Publishers have tried that in the past, and lost every single time. Google drops the excerpts/links, and publishers lose out on the benefits of free advertising.

      It’s called killing the golden goose, you know.

    • You are welcome to demand that Google pay for giving everyone free advertising, but they are just as welcome to say no and simply stop “posting portions of copyrighted material”.

      Publishers have tried that in the past, and lost every single time. Google drops the excerpts/links, and publishers lose out on the benefits of free advertising.

      It’s called killing the golden goose, you know.

      • If google won’t provide answers to a query, would you not just go to another search engine that does?

        • Oh, Google will provide the answer to a query. It just won’t lead to the people who demanded money from Google.

          Not everyone will make that mistake, you know.

          • Let’s explore that.. I do a search for a book by say, George Smith and Google returns something by Fred NottheguyI’m lookingfor… again, I go to another search engine.

            Let’s get back to Google copying and reproducing copyrighted material. Even if they did pay for the book, if the copyright states not to be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s permission.. why does that not apply to a search engine?

            • Because the copyright boilerplate reflects how the law is written in the lawbook—but “fair use” rights (called “fair dealing” in some other countries) are specifically positioned as the exceptions to those rules.

              The courts looked at what Google did and said, effectively, “Okay, it makes sense that this kind of use Google is making should be an exception to the law that prohibits copying, because it serves the greater purpose of copyright—promoting the progress of science and the useful arts. So mote it be.” And so it is. And if SCOTUS gives the case a miss, or falls in line with the findings of the lower courts, that’s all she wrote.

              You can print anything you like in a boilerplate, but a boilerplate doesn’t supersede the decision of the court, even if both parties to the boilerplate explicitly agree to it. It’s like how you can disclaim responsibility for people hacking you in your EULA (as VTECH is now trying to do) but that doesn’t mean you can’t be found guilty of negligence if you were in fact negligent in allowing the hack to take place.

            • “Let’s explore that.. I do a search for a book by say, George Smith and Google returns something by Fred NottheguyI’m lookingfor… again, I go to another search engine.”

              Nope. If you’re looking for an author’s name, then Google would still return the bookstore and other pages.

              But if you are looking for info that George Smith included in his book, you might not find his book if Smith objected to the book being listed in the search results (you can opt out, you know).

              Instead Google would pull info from another book and show that as the search result. And that other book may end up being bought by the searcher rather than Smith’s book.

              And just so you know, if authors and publishers don’t want the free advertising of having their works in Google’s search engine, they can opt out. They can also opt in.

              What The Authors Guild doesn’t realize, and what you keep missing as well, is that the book is no longer the special snowflake you and TAG assume it to be. Once they have been put online, any single book is infinitely replaceable by hundreds if not thousands of other sources of info.

              And even if you take the books offline, those thousands of other sources are still online, and in many cases are just as useful

  15. So I guess I’m the only one who twigged to the fact that the author Ms. Robinson used for her example of how Google the Terrible is ripping authors off by scanning without compensation happens to be in the public domain and wouldn’t have been compensated anyway?

    You’d think if she wanted to be more compelling, she’d at least use something familiar from an author who was still under copyright. Like, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    • I didn’t even read it.

      There was no point.

      • Youre a wise man Nate. Im more interested in what ‘many others’ think rather than one person alone. Not into one-point with no balance from all sides, writing. I find the many opinings that people put forth here, mostly no matter what they might be, are interesting in revealing how much people agree, how little they agree, and all in between. The many voices are one of the reasons I dig PG’s civil site.

        • It’s from the president of The Authors Guild. We both know what she’s going to say,don’t we?

          • I think there might Nate, be a opening for a children’s cartoon show about snowflakes that talk? lol

            • Special snowflakes that keep getting in everyone’s’ face about how important they and their thoughts are?

              Nope, kids will be turned off by someone trying to out-do them at getting attention …

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