The Internet war between ‘authors’ and writers

Bloomberg NewsJune 2, 2014 

The event was no place for people like me. At least that’s what I’d read on the Internet.

It was the inaugural program of an upstart association called the Authors Alliance, held in the former San Francisco church that now houses the Internet Archive. Founded by four University of California Berkeley professors, the alliance seeks to represent “authors who write to be read.”

The implicit contrast is with authors who write to be paid.

At least that’s how the rival Authors Guild, which dates back to 1912, took it. “If any of you earn a living as a writer, or hope to, I strongly urge you not to join the Authors Alliance,” wrote Authors Guild board member T.J. Stiles, a prize-winning biographer, in an angry rant on his group’s blog. He called the Authors Alliance an “astroturf organization” for “academics and hobbyists” and attacked the founders for their six-figure university salaries. Real authors, he argued, should have nothing to do with these people. They’re the enemy.

In reality, though, they’re the allies commercial writers desperately need – a potential counterweight to the knee-jerk technological fears of the guild.

I have been a full-time professional writer and editor for 32 years and have published three books from major commercial presses, the most recent one last November. I don’t have an academic or think-tank position, a rich husband or independent wealth. I don’t even draw a salary; for nine out of the past dozen years, including the past five, I’ve been self-employed and paid on a piecework basis. I do make money from speaking, but even that income is usually an extension of my writing, and is often as much a way of selling books as earning lecture fees.

I am, in other words, a bona fide author, even by the exclusionary standards of the Authors Guild. But the guild has for years actively undermined my interests while claiming in federal court to speak in my name. It channels commercial authors’ understandable anxieties about piracy threats and increasing competition into unjustified attacks on institutions and practices, such as fair use and computer indexing, that help us create new works and promote existing ones. It feeds authors’ fears while working to make it harder to write and sell books.

So I was thrilled to hear that someone had finally started an alternative. I flew up to San Francisco for the Authors Alliance kickoff, listened to what the speakers had to say, and interviewed two of the co-founders. Then I gave the group $100 and joined as a “sustaining member.”

The establishment Authors Guild encourages its members and the general public to believe that the upstart alliance wants to destroy copyright and, with it, authors’ ability to earn a living. “They say ‘Content wants to be free,' which means no copyright,” the novelist and Authors Guild board member Erica Jong said of the alliance to a Wall Street Journal reporter.

That is flatly untrue.

“Anybody who’s ever taken a look at my work will know I am not a copyright anarchist. I’m not a copyright communist,” co-founder Pamela Samuelson, a Berkeley law professor, told me in an interview. “I’ve actually spent my entire professional life trying to help copyright law adapt to the challenges of the technological age in which we’re finding ourselves.”

One of the bright ideas the Authors Alliance floated at its inaugural program was a small-claims process to let copyright holders pursue infringement cases without the enormous expense of a federal lawsuit – hardly an anti-copyright agenda. The group has outlined principles and proposals for copyright reform. Although I doubt that he’d embrace them, its ideas are compatible with Authors Guild president Scott Turow’s statement that “A proper overhaul, one that simplifies the processes for protecting copyrighted work and maintains the original purpose of copyright as laid out in the Constitution, will be beneficial to players on all sides.”

Contrary to guild propaganda, the fight between the two groups isn’t really over whether we should have copyrights. It’s primarily over the limits of “fair use,” the legal doctrine that allows another creator to build on an existing work by – to take an uncontroversial example – quoting a paragraph in a critical discussion.

In his blog post, Stiles invoked “people who copy and distribute your work without your permission.” You might assume he was talking about plagiarists and pirates. But what he really meant was the scanning, search and snippets offered by Google Books, or the digital preservation and indexing provided by the nonprofit HathiTrust. The Authors Guild has been fighting these projects in court. It claims that scanning books in order to make them searchable constitutes a copyright violation, even if the only thing shared with the public is a tiny bit of text (Google) or the page numbers on which a search term appears (HathiTrust). (Google Books also displays complete, downloadable versions of out-of-copyright works and offers full pages from copyrighted works, including my own, where it has made deals with publishers or authors to do so. These practices are not at issue.)

Last November, U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin dismissed the Authors Guild suit against Google. His ruling emphatically affirmed the “significant public benefits” of Google Books – including the benefits for authors and publishers – and declared the service easily within the legal definition of fair use. The Authors Guild said it would appeal the ruling. It is also appealing a 2012 circuit court ruling against it in the HathiTrust suit.

In a dry understatement, Chin’s ruling pointed out the most obvious reason that the guild’s position undermines authors’ commercial interests. “An important factor in the success of an individual title,” he wrote, “is whether it is discovered – whether potential readers learn of its existence.”

The Internet has unquestionably made it more difficult to make a living as a writer. But the problem isn’t copyright infringement. It’s competition. We’ve gone from a world in which reading material was relatively scarce and expensive to one in which it’s overabundant and nearly free. And it’s much, much harder to get readers to hear about your book. Reviews and excerpts get lost in the vast sea of online content. Online retailers haven’t found good substitutes for bookstore browsing. Scanning books to make them searchable doesn’t hurt sales. It gives those works a prayer of being found.

It also saves books from “digital oblivion.” For increasing numbers of readers, a book that doesn’t show up in a Google search or can’t be linked to in some way online might as well not exist. The scanning the Authors Guild wants to block rescues old titles from the memory hole. Going forward, it means that today’s new titles will have a chance of enduring, at least as searchable files, for as long as the websites are preserved by the Internet Archive. Do you want your latest book to be as easy to discover in 10 years as one of today’s cat videos or Buzzfeed listicles? Or do you want it to go down the memory hole unless you post it online for free?

There is a sort of perverse logic to the Authors Guild stance. Keeping as many old books as possible off the virtual shelves – making them hard to find and nearly impossible to obtain – is one way to limit competition. Digital oblivion gives new works an advantage.

But it also makes writing those new books harder. Authors build on the work of our predecessors. We argue with them, learn from them, quote them. As an author whose books seek to extract general patterns from seemingly disparate examples, I depend on the fair use of other works to make my case. An organization trying to weaken that right does not speak for me. Fortunately, it now has competition.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics, and public policy.

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