Monday, October 19, 2015

Fisking the Authors Guild

The Authors Guild just lost one of their ongoing cases against Google. The Guild have been whining that Google Book Scan--a service meant to digitally scan every book so the entire world could gain searchable Internet access to all of that info--is in fact violating copyright and stealing from authors. 

Hey, Authors Guild! Why not also charge readers a fee every time they recommend a book via word of mouth? If you want to give the middle finger to free discoverability, why not go all in?

The Authors Guild has lost similar battles. During Authors Guild vs. Bill Smopey, they sued him because he'd sat in a Barnes & Nobel and read half of The Terror by Dan Simmons but hadn't bought it. Smopey's defense, "After the first 500 pages, the monster wasn't even in it anymore, and I got bored and put it back." The Guild claimed that Smopey owed Simmons's publisher half of the cover price for reading without paying, and for partially crinkling page 342. The court dismissed the case, on account of it being really fucking stupid.

With Authors Guild vs. Janet's Mother, they sued because Janet bought a full price hardcover of Stephen King's The Cell, then loaned it to her mother to read. The Guild demanded Janet's Mother pay Stephen King a royalty, because she had no right to read what she hadn't bought for herself. Janet's Mother's legal team dazzled with the famous, "Well, what about libraries?!" defense and the suit was dropped.

That lead to Authors Guild vs. Libraries, where the Guild insisted that every library extract a pound of flesh from patrons who borrowed a book, in lieu of collecting royalties. But unlike the impossibility of separating blood from flesh,  making the acquisition of a pound of flesh quite impossible, the court did decide it was possible to separate the experience of reading a book with the fiduciary duty of monetarily compensating the author for having done so. Yep, you can read without paying.

In Authors Guild vs Used Books, the Guild assembled its hydrocephaletic brain trust to waste more members' dues to institute law that used book sales are illegal. Since authors only make royalties for the first sale, anyone who reads a book any other way is literally going into that author's house and stealing food from their starving children's mouths, which doesn't make much sense because no one wants to eat something that has been pre-chewed. The case was dismissed when it was discovered the AG legal team was relying on language they'd found in a 2011 edition of Black's Law Dictionary, which they'd bought used on

Other failed cases include supporting Wendy Dobesky's claim of copyright infringement by Star Wars LLC. In 1976, Wendy claimed to have a dream about some people fighting in space with bright swords, and some guy frenching his sister. She didn't write any of this down, but when she saw Star Wars she knew George Lucas must have used a Thought Stealing Machine on her. The case was dismissed when Discovery failed to find anything thought-related in any of Lucas's notes or outlines. Years later, the Authors Guild again supported Dobesky who said, after seeing Twilight, "Damn! I dreamed about sexy vampires before! Someone owes me fifty million bucks!" That suit was also a waste of members' dues. 

Perhaps it is time to rethink copyright in this digital age? But I've beaten this dead horse before.

The Guild recently remarked on their latest loss, to follow. Their nonsense in unreasonable bold italic font. My replies in sensible plain font.

Today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision in Authors Guild v. Google. “The Authors Guild is disappointed that the Court has failed to reverse the District Court’s faulty interpretation of the fair use doctrine,” said Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Authors Guild in New York. 

Apparently making all books discoverable on the Internet, which would not only add to the collective knowledge of the world, but help interested parties find the right books to buy, wasn't fair use. That it would help people find more books to buy seems lost in the fear that people would rather surf the internet and piece together a book random page by random page at great frustration and time cost to get a maximum of 16% of the full title, out of order no less. We all love reading like that, don't we?

“America owes its thriving literary culture to copyright protection. 

Actually, America owes its thriving literary culture to writers who are compelled to create. Copyright doesn't ensure a writer makes money. Readers do. And if the readers can't find the writer because--let's take a wild leap here--the writer's work isn't searchable on the world's biggest search engine, then copyright isn't going to put one cent in that writer's pocket.

Someone explain to me how a text searchable on Google differs from a text on a shelf at a local library? I'll tell you how. A library book can be loaned and read dozens of times, cover to cover. A Google scanned book cannot be read cover to cover. But Google is the bad guy.

It’s unfortunate that a Court as well-respected as the Second Circuit does not see the damaging effect that uses such as Google’s can have on authors’ potential income.

Yeah, damaging. Someone Googles a topic, and it leads to a free except of my book. Every author wants people to browse a bookstore and find their book among the thousands of others. But to be able to do this online, 24/7? That's stealing.

There are many ways to read a book without compensating the authors. Buy used. Go to a library. Borrow from a friend. Steal online. Use a paperback exchange. Read fan fic. 

Authors shouldn't fear being read. Being read will eventually lead to getting paid. Authors should be worrying about not being read, because readers don't know they exist. Google Book Scan wants to show the world books that the world hasn't ever seen before. The Authors Guild wants to micromanage this boon to authors and readers by collecting royalties.

Can someone call Mary Rasenberger on her landline, or if that's too technologically advanced for her, send her a telegram, and let her know the rest of us are living in 2015.

Dead trees are limited in reach because of scarcity (how many there are), proximity (how close they are to a reader), and dicoverability (how a reader searching for that type of book is able to find it). Google Book Scan solved all those problems.

So let's sue them.

Most full-time authors live on the perilous edge of being able to sustain themselves through writing as a profession, as our recent income survey showed, so even relatively small losses in income can make it unsustainable to continue writing for a living. 

What are the losses incurred when no one knows your book exists?

I write funny books about cops chasing serial killers. If Google scanned my books, anyone searching for "funny serial killer thriller" could learn about my titles, read excerpts, and perhaps become interested enough in them to seek them out.

Fair use? Hell, if I paid for Google to do that very same thing, I could write it off on my taxes as advertising.

We are disheartened that the court was unable to comprehend the grave impact that this decision, if left standing, could have on copyright incentives and, ultimately, our literary heritage. 

Because our literary heritage is dependent upon corporations squatting on the rights for Sherlock Holmes and Buck Rogers and Happy Birthday so other writers can't use them in their own work without paying a squatter's fee. 

I'm not saying that copyright still doesn't have a purpose. I'm saying, in a digital world, it needs to be reformed. Writers don't need to dwell on DMAC takedown notices. They should be dwelling on getting as many readers as possible. Even readers who don't pay. Because there is a whole bunch of entertainment out there, for free. Being discovered is a matter of numbers. Restricting access to your writing IN ANY WAY reduces your chances of discovery.

As for money? Show me anyone revered by a large group of people who isn't able to earn a living. If your writing is being widely read, the money will come. There isn't any better advertising for your work than 1M people pirating it. 

But if you can't stand the idea of someone Googling some random term and it leading to your novel which can then be read, in non-consecutive chunks up to 16%, then maybe you need to switch your art to something you have control over, like stoneware. You can decide who touches your stoneware on a case-by-case basis and otherwise keep it locked in a box so no one can steal it. 

Unless, of course, someone takes a picture of your stoneware, puts it on Pinterest, and you get thousands of likes. I mean, think how horrible that would be for your stoneware business...

We trust that the Supreme Court will see fit to correct the Second Circuit’s reductive understanding of fair use, and to recognize Google’s seizure of property as a serious threat to writers and their livelihoods, one which will affect the depth, resilience and vitality of our intellectual culture.”

Calling Google's book scanning initiative a "seizure of property" is like suing a hospital for "unwanted physical contact" when they intubated, catheterized, and pushed IV fluids and meds after the ambulance brought you in. I mean, what were those doctors thinking, trying to save your life without your permission? They have no right!

If you don't want your work read without your permission, write on paper and keep it locked up. But once you try to sell it, you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Some people will read it without paying you. There's no way around that. Suing the companies that give your work free exposure is stupid. 

Or perhaps the Authors Guild only wants "intellectual culture" to exist behind closed doors, at invitation-only events, far away from the prying eyes of the unwashed masses. Because there is nothing so threatening to the vitality of our literary heritage than a bunch of readers looking for stuff to read.

If I joined an Authors Guild, this is what I'd want.

1. A group that would fight for and pay to make my books visible and easily discoverable on Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and other places where readers search for books. Why doesn't the Authors Guild have a BookBub-type service? Wouldn't dues be better spent on that than suing Google or petitioning Congress

2. A group that DEMANDED new contract terms from publishers, including better royalties, no non-compete or next option clauses, and automatic rights reversion after a set amount of time. The Guild's much touted Fair Contract Initiative is nothing more than navel-gazing mutters that things aren't fair. Even Oliver Twist grabbed his bowl asked for more gruel. He didn't blog about starvation being unfair, while plaintively hoping things will change soon--but no naming any names here! Grab your bowl and demand what you're owed, you chickens.

3. A group that studied and experimented with piracy to expand awareness of books. I'm still waiting for any controlled study to measure the effects of piracy on an artist's income. I only am able to find a lot of hot air, coming from the Authors Guild hellbent on making sure they collect royalties if someone mentions a book title in a Skype conversation, and the fear mongering of companies who get paid for fighting piracy. 

4. A group that tried to reform copyright for the better of humanity, and authors.

5. A group that can be looked upon by authors with pride, rather than as the punchline to jokes about the tragically outdated,

Until the Authors Guild gets their collective head out of 1985 and learns about the Internet and ebooks and how their role has changed from majordomo to the Big 5, they will not survive. 

Take a cue from Authors United, who have taught us that a group of major bestselling authors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, can be embarrassingly ineffective when their agenda is so self-serving and stupid.

You can try to sue the clouds for raining on you. Or you can make a fortune selling umbrellas. Which is smarter?

Amazon, ebooks, and piracy are here to stay. No law can ever work if it goes against what people are going to do anyway. The spread of digital media must force us to study how it is being used, so we can benefit from it. It isn't something you can control. It's something you observe. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, or the war on drugs. Net neutrality will remain, and piracy will always be a part of it. Treat Google as a partner, rather than as an adversary. The same with Amazon. Treat the Big 5 as adversaries, until they reform their contracts. Use the media to push a positive agenda. Hire Data Guy at to teach you how to conduct your own studies or the marketplace. Abandon the status quo, drop your preconceptions, and start fresh, figuring out how all of your poverty-level members could have a shot at making a living.

If I were in charge, it would take me a week to put the Authors Guild on the right track. 

My first job would be to give the current Board of Directors new responsibilities, the sum total of which would be a daily meeting at Dennys spent brainstorming, and the notes generated will serve as an example of what not to do.

Then I'm bringing in a bunch of young, smart writers to get shit done. Such as:
  • An advertising partnership with Amazon to feature AG members' titles.
  • An advertising partnership with Facebook to feature AG members' titles.
  • An advertising partnership with Google to feature AG members' titles.
  • Letters to the Big 5 demanding better contract terms, and a media campaign held in the court of public opinion exposing the unconscionability of publishing contracts. If it leads to litigation, all the better.
  • Letters to the Big 5 to demand lower ebook prices, for both retailers and libraries.
  • Petitioning Congress to reform copyright law.
  • Health care.
  • Conducting actual studies on piracy.
  • Fighting SOPA and other threats to free speech and net neutrality.
  • Striking if needed.
The Authors Guild isn't beneficial. It isn't neutral. It's harmful. Every time Robinson or Ravensberger whines in the media, they spout nonsense that less-informed readers and writers accept as truths. Until this bullshit stops, and real problems start getting addressed, the Guild will exist to ensure the Guild continues to exist, and do very little for the authors it purportedly helps. If your average member is earning $10k a year, stronger piracy laws aren't going to help. Advertising, better contract terms, and teaching alternative forms of publication will help. Biggering discoverability by saturating the Internet, social media, and retailers with Guild books will help. Relaxing copyright law so more IP can be used by all.

Unfortunately, change won't happen overnight. And it is unlikely it will happen from within. So the best thing an author can do is quit the Authors Guild. Don't lend your name to their weight, or your dues to their war chest. If membership drops enough, and they become weak enough, and orchestrated coup could seize power and rebuild them as an effective tool in protecting authors' rights. Until that happens, ignore them. Or look upon them as you look upon the many mistakes found in history books. 

Just don't get those books on bit torrent. The Authors Guild will send a takedown notice.