Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Google Copyright Settlement II: Does It Go Too Far?

In a recent post I discussed Google's legal settlement with copyrighted authors for digitizing the contents of research libraries online. To save you going through the entire post, here's a synopsis of the agreement as outlined in a NYRB article:

  • Google will continue to allow free access to digitized texts already in the public domain
  • For copyrighted texts institutions will have to subscribe to a data bank which they can then make available on only one computer for free access
  • Individuals may also purchase access through a consumer license
  • Google will then retain about a third of the income with the registry distributing the rest among copyright holders
The focus of my post and the article it was based on was concern over Google's possible monopoly on knowledge. From a writer's vantage point, though, dividing income among copyright holders was lauded as a huge victory. But does it go too far?

The wonder of the Internet is all the information available to anyone, anytime. This settlement essentially drags research back into the libraries where, again, resources will be limited (on one computer) or back into the purview of the few––usually professionals in the field––for whom the time or money for an individual license will be worth it.

Let's say I'm writing an article on the effects of Global Warming on certain Indigenous populations of Alaska. Despite the thesis-sounding description, I'm not a climatologist or an anthropologist and my piece isn't intended for a scholarly journal. I'm simply a freelance writer hoping to put a human face on a scientific topic, and I'm selling it as a feature to my local newspaper or to the publication of an environmentalist group or maybe even to a travel magazine.

On the human side I can interview people. On the scientific side I don't want to simply repeat information already contaminated by second and third hands. I Google (of course) climatology journal and find the site for The International Review of Climatology . Online I will find abstracts of articles from issues going back several years, however, if I want to read the entire article I have to pay for 24-hour access. Keep in mind I'm not writing an expose that will make the cover of TIME. I'm writing an article for which I will receive, at most, a couple hundred bucks, and what I want from an article is quotes and stats, and while the abstract will give me a general idea of what the article covers, it will not tell me whether it contains any quotes or stats I can use.

My second choice is to find a research library that subscribes to the journal online. So let's say I actually can find such a library in the nearest city, over an hour's commute away on a good traffic day. I get there and the computer with access to the journal I need is in use, and it remains in use the entire day.

Whether I pay to view several different articles or visit the city several days in a row, the hourly rate for this article simply won't be worth it. I will either give it up, or write the article doing what far too many do (but until now with less excuse), look for sources that take what someone else said out of context and possibly spread inaccurate information exponentially.

It seems to me there could have been a more workable middle road solution to this problem. I really don't know how scholarly journals like The International Review of Climatology work. If any of my readers does know I'd love to hear from them, but I assume it is similar to the way any other journal or magazine works. If my submission is accepted, I'm paid––that's it. I don't, for example, get paid for every time someone reads my story in Sotto Voce. Furthermore, every time a library purchases a journal in which my work has appeared, I don't receive a portion of the payment.

Current copyright law is lifetime+70 years. That can add up to well over a century before one of these articles enters the public domain.

To satisfy both the journals' subscription fees (though if you read my last article you saw how-out-of-line they can be), I could see having some rules in effect for a specific period of time, perhaps a year or at most two after the journal's publication date. After that I don't see why these digitized articles can't be open and free to the public for fair use.

I'm all for finding ways for writers to be paid, but this settlement feels like a 20-year step backwards. I think it goes too far.

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