Thinking Tech

Whodat saving me from Google Books?

Posting in Technology

This is a deal between the writer and Google. All these other characters seem interested in doing is acting as middlemen, getting a cut. But these are orphaned works -- they are currently worth nothing.

New Orleans Saints fans are sometimes called "whodats," since in their cajun accents they  taunt opponents with "who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" (So far this year, the answer is no one.)

(With Live, Little Red Hen is still in print and available for Christmas giving at Amazon.com. What she is doing here will soon be made clear.)

Whodat is an important question you need to answer in evaluating any criticism of anyone. Who are you, what is your interest in this, why are you getting in the middle of this, what's in it for you?

In the case of Google Books a whole bunch of whodats have forced the company to retreat from digitizing all books. It's now only after those in the English-speaking world.

You think this satisfies the whodats? You think Sarah Palin wants to go back to being governor of Alaska?

Apologies to the Palin fans, but the analogy is heartfelt. Those who complained initially about the Google Books idea -- we'll digitize the books, store the books, even sell books that you can't afford to print and give authors a big cut of the money -- aren't going quietly into that good night.

Like Levi Johnston, they want to extend their 15 minutes of fame indefinitely.

In this case the critics have high-sounding names like Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP) and the Open Books Alliance (OBA). They claim to represent authors, writers like me who have out-of-print titles and might benefit from having these "orphan works" digitized and sold online.

But do they really?

Let's be clear here. Google came up with this idea. No other company has offered to match the free money Google wants to give me. No one else has promised to digitize the world's books, make them available, handle the transaction processing, and (even maybe) send me a check.

So whodat say dey gonna beat dem Google?

ICOMP says this is a bad deal. Bad for competition and innovation:

If Google were serious about allowing meaningful competition, the settlement would allow any company to access copies of orphan works scanned pursuant to the settlement on the same terms as Google.

Very nice in theory, but Google is making the investment, Google is digitizing and storing these books. Where is your investment in this, ICOMP?

OBA throws the virtual book at Google:

Google, the AAP (Association of American Publishers, and the AG (U.S. Attorney General) are attempting to distract people from their continued efforts to establish a monopoly over digital content access and distribution; usurp Congress’s role in setting copyright policy; lock writers into their unsought registry, stripping them of their individual contract rights; put library budgets and patron privacy at risk; and establish a dangerous precedent by abusing the class action process.”

The OBA's "baseline requirements" make it appear that these orphan works are a gold mine, that there's a flood of people seeking to buy, sell and trade these books. That's false. There are no such people. These are called "orphan works" for a reason. The market abandoned them.

Who is in the OBA? Microsoft, Yahoo, small presses, and groups of writers who are under the mistaken impression that there is a pony for them somewhere, assuming Google walks away.

There is no pony if Google walks away. Collecting, organizing and digitizing books costs money. If you have several companies doing the digitizing, the complexity rises exponentially. Now you need someone coordinating -- can't be any of the participants.

And how are readers supposed to find these digitized books, if they're in multiple archives? Serendipity is going to be your main source of sales on orphaned works. If you had someone pointing to them, they too would have to cash in.

See what I'm saying? This is a deal between the writer and Google. All these other characters seem interested in doing is acting as middlemen, getting a cut, justifying their existence. But these are orphaned works -- there is no market for them. They are currently worth nothing.

So how about if these folks agree to take a cut of that? The OBA can have 10% of what the market is worth today. Heck, let's be generous and offer 50%. And 50% of nothing is...

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure