Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin

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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?

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 Sharon Astyk
    March 1, 2010

    Wonderful interview – thanks so much for sharing it!

    Sharon

  2. #2 gregSEED
    March 1, 2010

    “I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.”

    Who could ask for more? Nicely done, Claire.

  3. #3 JPita
    March 1, 2010

    The struggle/schism has sharpened between distribution and content. The sword is double edged– Google/China, Google/Newscorp, Google/orphaned works-writers, Newscorp/Cable. The “good fight” is muddy. Victory is not assured for anyone. But sides will be chosen.
    JP

  4. #4 William
    March 1, 2010

    Great interview (maybe it helps that I’m a huge fan). However, does anybody believe that the current copyright system is not controlled by corporations? The true state of affairs is particular acute for non-Americans, since the US government seems to be serving US corporate interests in pushing other countries to change their copyright laws. See, e.g., the list the US publishes of top copyright offenders.

  5. #5 dhogaza
    March 1, 2010

    As someone who’s had the opportunity to meet with, and talk to, Ms. LeGuin several times over a period of a couple of decades, among her other attributes don’t forget to mention that she is one of the most gracious people you’ll ever meet, and very generous with her time, giving readings and booksignings for non-profits among other things (the context within which I’ve had the opportunity to talk to her).

  6. #6 dhogaza
    March 1, 2010

    Beautiful portrait, too, BTW…

  7. #7 asdf
    March 1, 2010

    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?

    Extremely naive comment by LeGuin. This is just corporation vs. corporation, with government on the sidelines. I know I’d rather go with Google on this than the sci-fi publishers, who are basically the RIAA or MPAA all over again.

  8. #8 History Punk
    March 1, 2010

    “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.”

    Utter nonsense. In researching my thesis, I have come across diaries, correspondence, pictures, and other forms of intellectual property relating to my topic that I would have loved to have or have translated and brought to the broader public. However, given the difficulty in locating the authors, some of whom appears to have been massacred alongside their families and much of their villages, while others remain unlocated despite the best efforts of the SS, Gestapo, UDBA, FBI, CIA, and other relevant agencies to find them, I simply shoved some very interested material back into the folders of boxes that have been requested once in the last decade and then moved on to other stuff. Besides, what use could records relating to the rescue of Jews by Bosnian Muslims have in today’s world.

    Besides, why should she get paid for work preformed years ago? My mother and her fellow US Army medical professionals improve and save lives everyday, something far more valuable than any of Ms. Le Guin’s books, and come the 1st and 15th of they are paid off for it. They don’t collect fees from the kids who are born because of the lives they saved, or from the individuals for whom their actions led to better lives.

  9. #9 Charlie Cornelius
    March 2, 2010

    History Punk needs to go back to whoever has been supervising his/her thesis and get them to teach them proper research techniques. You are allowed, under current copyright law, to refer to any material in a thesis, and include short extracts, as long as you give clear reference to that material.

    As for why an author should get paid for work done years ago… How else is an author to put food on the table. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that anyone who gets published is wealthy. More than 90% of authors in the Western world earn less than a dollar an hour for their work. Would you work for that much?

  10. #10 Elena
    March 2, 2010

    To me, this is similar to the Amazon/McMillan argument. McMillan wanted a specific price for the E-books from Amazon, while Amazon wanted to price them less.

    Consequently, Amazon removed all of the buy buttons for any McMillan title in an effort to bully McMillan into agreeing with the specific price.

    This supposedly forced patrons who wished to purchase any book published by McMillan into going to a brick and mortar store.

    The publishing company was not hurt, the individual authors were.

    The authors and their heirs are entitled to the royalties generated from the intellectual work the author performed whether or not the work was done yesterday or 100 years ago if the copyright has been maintained.

    Google should hire the people to do the research just like anyone else does, creating jobs.

  11. #11 Vicki
    March 2, 2010

    History Punk–

    The difference is that her work is still being used, in a sense that many people’s isn’t. If I get paid to cook a meal or teach a class or paint a building, I cook one meal or teach one class or paint one building once. You might remember that meal fondly, but you aren’t still eating it. Someone who learned from me has that learning, but a new person can’t walk into that 1997 classroom and participate in that same lesson.

    Books are different. (So are some other forms of art.)

    Work Le Guin did forty years ago is still being enjoyed by new readers. If it weren’t, this wouldn’t be an issue. Google wants to sell advertising to people who want to read Le Guin’s fiction (as well as lots of other books). They aren’t setting up a charity–they plan to make money on this, and they’re demanding that nobody else should ever get a better deal on this than they are. (So nobody else is likely to be able to set up a genuine, no-ads, free internet library.) Given that the work is still valued, why should the money go to some large corporation rather than to the person who did the work? What work is Sergei Brin doing today that means he should be profiting from Le Guin’s work? What work are the people who own stock in Verizon and Comcast and Consolidated Edison doing, such that they somehow deserve a payoff for the power and connectivity that will drive this? A lot of stock is inherited–why is that somehow more valid than inheriting one’s mother’s copyrights?

  12. #12 Vicki
    March 2, 2010

    @Vicki, not that I agree with everything History Punk is saying, but as to your rhetorical question about Sergei Brin, the answer seems pretty clear—Google is scanning old books and wants to put them on the web, where I can access them easily. Pretty clear public benefit there.

  13. #13 Kenneth Mark Hoover
    March 3, 2010

    Excellent interview.

  14. #14 mad the swine
    March 3, 2010

    “History Punk needs to go back to whoever has been supervising his/her thesis and get them to teach them proper research techniques. You are allowed, under current copyright law, to refer to any material in a thesis, and include short extracts, as long as you give clear reference to that material.”

    This refers to published works, IIRC. HP is referring, if I read his comment correctly, to unpublished, private papers/photos/etc, for which the rules are different.

    And not to malign Le Guin, whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but when she talks about a

    corporation whose interest is in controlling information and horning in on writers’ profits […] 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.

    you’d hardly know that it’s the corporation she opposes which is trying to make books publicly available, and she and her allies the ones working to keep the texts limited.

  15. #15 sherrold
    March 3, 2010

    When I read:

    I’m protesting against a corporation being allowed to rewrite the rules of copyright and the laws of my country

    I don’t think Google; I think Disney, and their power to push horrible extensions of copyright.

    Spider Robinson was the only SF writer that I remember speaking out against that.

    I agree that this class action suit has led to less than perfect results, but it can be modified, and it may lead to legistlation that will improve it. The current situation of orphans, and libraries without clout to make their scanned books available, is not the utopia ULG is making it sound.

  16. #16 Mike Olson
    March 3, 2010

    I feel really horrible placing this here as it is entirely out of context. I went to the contact page of this blog and found no way to ask this question. I recently started reading Amy Thomson’s book, “The Color of Distance.” I’m highly impressed and at this point feel I’d like to read more of her stuff. She is seems to be neither particularly famous nor prolific(4-5 books in fifteen years or so). I’m hoping she doesn’t quit. Her take on alien culture and first contact scenarios are, in my opinion, very good. She also suggests a plausible series of events (anaphylaxis) on other oxygen rich worlds. Bascially, I’m fishing for information on Amy Thomson, whether she has plans of writing more than the books she has already written…and frankly, I use a multi-library catalogue and not all of her books are carried. Claire, I was hoping you could give me information or a direction to look in. I didn’t really want to put all of this in a comment section of an interview.

  17. #17 pam ronald
    March 3, 2010

    We need science fiction writers to weigh in. After all they are well equipped to envision how our actions today will affect the a distant future.

  18. #18 History Punk
    March 4, 2010

    “History Punk needs to go back to whoever has been supervising his/her thesis and get them to teach them proper research techniques. You are allowed, under current copyright law, to refer to any material in a thesis, and include short extracts, as long as you give clear reference to that material.”

    And someone needs to teach you how to read. I explicitly stated that I wanted to have it “translated and brought to the broader public,” which means I am using more than short extracts and quotes. Jesus Christ dude, I am learning disabled and dumb to enlist in the military while having a free ride to college, yet had enough cognitive function to figure that out. Is your mom/wife the former governor of Alaska?

  19. #19 History Punk
    March 4, 2010

    “As for why an author should get paid for work done years ago… How else is an author to put food on the table. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that anyone who gets published is wealthy. More than 90% of authors in the Western world earn less than a dollar an hour for their work. Would you work for that much?”

    I could not care less. Seriously. Odds are, if you’re earning a dollar an hour for your labor than you’re labor is not needed or desired. Too many people have been suckered into believing they have the talent to write and should do so. If a limited copyright will cut down on the bibliographic spewage polluting B&N or Borders, all the better.

    If you need a system that rewards great-grand children and beyond for the work of people they’ve never met to motivate you to do a job, maybe that job isn’t for you. :)

  20. #20 Sara
    March 4, 2010

    Google is seeking to provide a service with a public benefit, yes. But the only reason they are providing that public benefit is because it will increase their own profits. To pretend that they are doing this our of the goodness of their hearts is naive.

    Furthermore, if Ms. Leguin does not wish for Google to make money off of her work, that seems like a valid wish. A free online public digital library in the future sounds great – but just like I wouldn’t want Borders to all of a sudden own the publishing rights to every book ever, so that they could let me read it for free WHILE ADVERTISING TO ME, I don’t want Google to own the rights to The Left Hand of Darkness just so I can read it for free online while they make advertising bucks. Let a not-for-profit do it.

  21. #21 Martin R
    March 5, 2010

    OMG, an original LeGuin interview on Sb! Awesome!

  22. #22 Frances Grimble
    March 6, 2010

    The way publishing works is, most writers do not get paid all they need to earn from their work up front. The labor they perform is compensated bit by bit over years of sales, reprints, new editions, etc. And of sales to subsidiary rights such as those to e-books–which latter rights Google is currently trying to seize. That is why writers need long copyright terms.

    Writing is very hard work, and writing one book can take years–even full time. People who assert that it’s a fun and easy hobby, therefore readers don’t need to pay for books, at best don’t understand what they are talking about. Writing a book at a professional level requires professional expertise. Writing is not intrinsically more fun than any other profession. Nobody likes every aspect of their job and every day they work at it: It’s the same for writers. Writing may benefit the public; so do most other professions. That is not an excuse to expect them to work for free.

    Publishers also perform many important and expensive essential services such as editing, fact checking, proofreading, indexing, graphic design, page layout, illustration, translation into foreign languages, and a great deal else; while incurring all the overhead needed in running a business. If a writer self-publishes, all these tasks, costs, and risks do not change; they are merely shifted from publisher to author.

    To denigrate the work of writers by saying that you want their work free and simultaneously, that if they somehow don’t earn enough money anyway, tough, you are still entitled to their work, is–self-serving is the kindest term I can think of. People who really value literature and information are willing to pay for them. There is no reason why creators of works–and all the subsidiary freelancers or employees they need such as editors and graphic artists–should become a slave class, laboring to provide free books to readers who are enjoying comfortable livings from their own work while expecting all their enlightement and entertainment free in addition.

    The terms of the Settlement make it very clear that Google plans to charge for both e-books and POD books created from the scans–not give them away. That is, charge for them in addition to selling advertising next to the online pages. One of the complaints about the Settlement made by diverse parties, from libraries to the US Justice Department, is that Google will effectively have a monopoly on the copyrighted books, therefore Google can fix prices.

    So, Google’s not doing the public any favors. Anyone can produce and sell e-books and POD books. They hardly need Google to do it–or for Google and the proposed Book Registry to each take a big cut of the profits from e-book and POD book sales while having done nothing at all to actually create the book.

  23. #23 G. Profi
    March 8, 2010

    It is really a nice article with the help of a nice video.According to me every one should go through it at least once.

  24. #24 Helen
    March 8, 2010

    Would HistoryPunk please stop making such offensive posts in an otherwise interesting discussion about a topic of great importance to writers around the globe?

  25. #25 Mark Nelson
    March 24, 2010

    Frankly, I thought UKL was being overly gracious with a bunch of clumsy, inept leading questions. She is defending intellectual property. It only took 10 years for the Napster-gate scenario to play out in the literary world. She and other writers have a right to contest the unilateral co-opting of their works. History Punk reflects the cynicism of the age–an age which has shown itself to be vacuous and leaderless.

  26. #26 Kan
    March 27, 2010

    “I could not care less. Seriously. Odds are, if you’re earning a dollar an hour for your labor than you’re labor is not needed or desired. Too many people have been suckered into believing they have the talent to write and should do so. If a limited copyright will cut down on the bibliographic spewage polluting B&N or Borders, all the better.”

    I’m in love with this comment. I don’t really have an opinion about the digitization of books, or about copyright law…but seriously, why should we care how much money authors make? There’ll always be good books…more than anyone can read in a lifetime. Milton didn’t make shit from publishing his work, but we still got Paradise Lost (he sold the copyright for ten pounds…which was, admittedly, a much larger amount in 1667, but still not _that_ much).

  27. #27 David
    May 8, 2010

    Among lots of possible comments @ History Punk & Kan:
    there is the pesky nuisance of giving credit where credit is due. Authors wrote their works. Google didn’t, and people accessing works on Goggle’s website didn’t.
    “Odds are, if you’re earning a dollar an hour for your labor than your labor is not needed or desired.”
    Oh, really. I guess that settles it.

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