Silence! Author under threat

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 01/09/06):

Today, at the push of a button, you can download and print the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy, using only a computer, an internet connection, a paving stone of paper and a small bucket of ink. Technically, the service is free, although it would be easier and cheaper simply to buy the book, which could then be read in the bath, while saving on printer cartridges and trees.

The new service is the latest step in the stated goal of Google, the internet search engine, “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and, although few may be rushing to print out the Digitised Dante, it marks an important development in world literature. For some, making books available online for free download represents a paradise found; others, including a number of worried publishers and writers, fear it may point the way to the ninth circle of hell.

Google’s Book Search service is just one part of the Library Project, in which the internet engine has teamed up with libraries around the world, including the Bodleian in Oxford, to digitise collections and make millions of books available and searchable online. The scale of Google’s ambition is comparable to the Ptolemies, the kings of Egypt who created the great library at Alexandria in the 3rd century BC: not just a collection of books, but the very distillation of human knowledge.

At first sight, the notion of a limitless digital library seems irresistible, a single, free repository accessible from every corner of the globe. A researcher in darkest Paraguay will be able to study one of the 49 Gutenberg bibles at no cost. Partners in the Library Project say the system will enable users to access not just the classics, but also much more obscure works: forgotten novels, scientific accounts, illustrations and neglected poetry.

Moribund books may be brought back to life. Librarians are often frustrated at the unseen gems in their collections gathering dust. Now the whole lot can be digitally stacked on an endless virtual shelf, to be browsed by anyone with a computer mouse.

The problem lies not with digitalising dead or undead books, but the potential danger to those that still have commercial life in them in the form of copyright. Google is quick to point out that the books available for download through Book Search are all out of copyright. Indeed, while European law allows copyright to expire 70 years after an author’s death, the new service does not offer anything published later than the mid-19th century.

Moreover, under the umbrella Library Project, if a book remains in copyright, access to the text is restricted, and at most a few sentences or “snippets” are available online.

Some publishers, however, see the availability of free books for digital download as the thin end of a very large wedge that could split literature by undermining copyright itself. Last year the Association of American Publishers filed suit against Google claiming that by scanning 100 per cent of a book (to make it searchable by word) the company is infringing copyright, even if only a small excerpt is then available for free.

Google points out that publishers and authors can opt out and insist their books are not digitised. But copyright means just that: conferring the right to copy. If Google, or anyone else, wants to reproduce or even just store copyrighted material, it should seek and obtain permission, not assume it and then wait for the rightful owner to squeal. Tracing who owns the rights to a book that is out of print but not out of copyright is a fiddly business but vital to preserving the principle of intellectual property rights.

Giving away out-of-copyright books for free download, while laudable in itself, can only reinforce the growing cultural assumption that all content on the internet should be free. It seems likely that, in the future, internet engines will bring pressure on publishers to allow more and more content to appear gratis online as they battle to maintain revenues.

Google insists it is the friend of the publisher and author, defending copyright and enabling readers to discover and buy more books, but for all its commendable principles, this is a huge operation geared to making a profit in an increasingly cut-throat business.

Google is set to become the behemoth of literature, controlling millions of books and billions of words. There is something unsettling about so much valuable knowledge concentrated in one intensely ambitious organisation. The Ptolemies, after all, did not begin the collections that would become the Alexandria Library because they were bookworms: amassing and controlling the world’s knowledge was a statement of power.

There is more to publishers’ fears than maintaining their profits and securing authors’ royalties. If copyright is not adequately protected, then literature itself suffers. Contrary to popular myth, the penniless writer does not starve in his garret: he finds something else to do. As Dr Johnson expressed it: “No man but a fool ever wrote, except for money.”

We should enter the vast new online libraries with awe and admiration, but also with care. Digitising books may introduce readers to unknown vistas of the written word, but the new technology cannot be allowed to lead to free literature, or the idea that anyone other than an author decides when and how his work may be rightfully copied.

For centuries, artists have fought to protect their work from being copied and disseminated without payment: in 1623 the composer Salomone Rossi wrote a setting of the Psalms that included a curse on anyone who copied the contents. These days authors can rely on more than a curse.

The tutting librarian should be replaced by another authority figure policing the stacks: the copyright lawyer, ensuring that every new addition to the online collection comes with the express permission of the writer, and a royalty.

Silence is golden in a library; but the law of copyright is beyond price.