Photograph by Benjamin Reed.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a internationally-recognized, award-winning science fiction writer, an elegant badass and the author of such classics as the Hugo and Nebula-award winning The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe Of Heaven, and the Earthsea novels. Last year, she began mounting formidable opposition to the Google Books Settlement, an inscrutably complex 303-page agreement reached between the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and Google regarding the Web giant’s desire to scan the libraries of the world. The Settlement, if approved — it currently lingers in the courts after a Fairness Hearing on February 18 — will grant Google permission to circumvent existing U.S. copyright law, using a new revenue system designed to compensate authors and publishers for the use of their copyrighted books.
It’s an almost Kafkaesquely complex agreement, and I recommend, if you’re interested, to read this very helpful Fiction Circus interview with Professor James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor and authority on the subject.
Opposition to the Settlement currently outweighs support, and includes the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writer’s Union, the Department of Justice, as well as scores of international authors groups, commercial interests, and individual authors — including the estate of the late Philip K. Dick. Le Guin’s hand in the opposition comes in the form of a 367-signature-strong petition, which skews heavily towards her peers in science fiction and fantasy, including noted authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Marilyn Hacker, Mercedes Lackey, and Vonda N. McIntyre, none of whom are strangers to the moral-technological battlefield of speculative fiction.
I interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin on the subject earlier this month.
Universe: Are you “opting out” of the Google Books Settlement?
Ursula K. Le Guin: I have opted out.
Universe: Some people think that the Settlement’s “opt out” clause is necessary for Google’s goals regarding so-called “orphaned works” — namely, to take them out of obscurity and back into the public space without the time-and-resource-consuming search for their copyright holders. What is your response to this?
UKL: We are hearing so much now about orphans and out-of-print books that I can’t help feeling that some of this concern is a smokescreen concealing the fact that Google’s digitalization plans are, as the Director of the U.S. Copyright Office said, “an end run around copyright.”
These days, since the publishers are likely to insist that a work is in print even though no copies are being printed, distributed, or sold, it can be very hard to establish whether or not a book is in print — but that’s completely irrelevant to the question, is it under copyright? Anybody who wants to copy the work must get permission — item by item, case by case — from the copyright holder: that’s the law that protects the rights of authors. Everybody before Google who wanted to copy an o.p. or orphaned work had to find who held the copyright and ask permission. And everybody did so. And Google can do so.
It won’t bankrupt them. They just saved quite a lot of money getting out of China, I believe.
Universe: But U.S. copyright law currently protects a work for 70 years after the author’s death, even if it’s gone out of print — hence the whole “orphan books” thing.
UKL: Old, out-of-print, and orphaned are NOT synonyms. An orphan book is a book whose copyright owner can’t be found although sought for. The “Disney Law,” by grotesquely overextending the term of copyright to seventy years, of course creates many more such books. But I see a very strong tendency to deny that there is even a responsibility to look for the copyright owner. Piracy is so much easier.
Universe: I find it ironic that the science fiction community is rallying against something which is so futuristic, the digitization of masses of books for online dissemination. Do you feel any personal conflict, as a writer of science fiction, between the desire to be part of the technological age and your role in protesting this?
UKL: “The future” in most science fiction is just a metaphor for “us, here, now.” The possibility of digitizing books to make them available to everybody, a limitless Public Library, is us, here, now. It’s our baby. Let’s bring the baby up right, in the public interest — not hand it to a corporation whose interest is in controlling information and horning in on writers’ profits.
I’m part of the technological age whether I want to be or not, and mostly I enjoy it very much. I’m not protesting technology — how stupid would that be? Writers against Computers, or something? I’m protesting against a corporation being allowed to rewrite the rules of copyright and the laws of my country — and in doing so, to wreck the whole idea of that limitless electronic Public Library.
Universe: What do you want to happen to your books after you die?
UKL: I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.
Universe: Do you think an author should even concern themselves with that?
UKL: So long as the author is alive, yes, of course. Once the author is dead, I think she may be excused from concern.
Universe: Obviously this Settlement issue is just one aspect of a rapidly-changing industry. How do you think the role of publishers is going to change in the future?
UKL: Oh, Claire, that question is way beyond me. It’s like asking a monk busy copying a text in 1452, “How do you think Herr Gutenberg is going to change your role in the future?”
Universe: As books transition from physical objects to file-entities on one screen or another, what will the publishers do? Are they made irrelevant? Would you like to see them made irrelevant?
UKL: I don’t see how a writer can consider publishers irrelevant, or want them done away with — unless you believe that by printing a work yourself, or posting a work on the Internet, you’ve done what publishers do. Sure, the technology and the means are changing and will change further. The problems of making the name known, getting the work distributed to those who want it, and getting it paid for, however, haven’t changed.
Universe: We’re talking about the future of publishing. How would you rather this work? Do you see government legislation as a better avenue for setting the ground rules of this new industry?
UKL: All publication of information and art can be seen as partly in the public interest. The vast and currently chaotic electronic expansion of publishing should not be controlled solely by corporations, whose interest is limited to making profit. Our government and legal system uphold and control the ground rules of all publication, such as copyright and contract law. Does anybody but the CEO’s of large corporations seriously believe we should hand those rights and laws over to private interests to rewrite?
Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s official statement on the Google Books issue.
Read my Space Canon review of Le Guin’s classic The Lathe Of Heaven.