Ursula K. Le Guin vs. Google Books

by | Jan 8, 2010 06:17 PM ET

Author Ursula K. Le Guin at the PEN USA Annual LitFest Awards Gala in 2005.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Many authors are up in arms over the ascension of Google Books, and it isn't all that hard to see why: If I were a writer, I'd be nervous if a wildly successful tech company decided to take it upon itself to digitize millions of books and make them accessible to the masses for free. When renowned science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin decided to take on the Google machine, she drew shocked acclaim. Now, three writers' groups are taking her fight to Congress – and they just might get results.

Le Guin surprised many last month when she resigned her 40-year membership in the Authors' Guild because of support of Google's plan to scan and digitize books without the authors' permission. “You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so,” she wrote. “I wish I could accept them. I can't.

“There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright, and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”

The Author's Guild actually sued Google back in 2005 after the group (and more than few writers) found out about a series of agreements that Google had made with a bunch of American colleges to scan books and make them available online. Five textbooks publishers, including John Wiley and McGraw-Hill, joined soon after.

The lawsuit's outcome, however, was a shocker:  The Author's Guild and the Association of American Authors ended up settling with the tech giant for $125 million, but it's since been amended under protest from the U.S. Department of Justice, among others. (A final hearing will take place in February.)

However, the leaders of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA), the National Writers Union (NWU) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) had no intention of waiting for the courts. On Wednesday, they wrote to more than 60 authors in Congress – a group that includes Senators Al Franken, Olympia Snowe and John McCain – to urge them to protest the Google deal.

“As fellow authors, you know the freedom to negotiate your own book contract is basic and precious. We hope you will join us in speaking in opposition to the amended settlement,” the letter read. “It isn't fair. There are millions of book authors in this country who could be locked into an agreement they don't understand and didn't ask for.”

What's more, they warned, "the amended version of the settlement still creates a de facto monopoly for Google at the expense of all Americans."

Time will tell if the writers' solidarity ploy makes a difference, but I'm certain that they already have Le Guin's approval. Although she quit the Author's Guild, she's staying in the NWU and SWFFA: “They don't have your clout, but their judgment, I think, is sounder, and their courage greater.”

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