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Google Books is quickly becoming the Library of Alexandria for the digital age, a vast collection of the world's written knowledge. There's no need to fly to Egypt to check it out, however. Google Books are available free, online, making Google the world's most accessible librarian.
But, as Google endeavors to make all written matter free, who will look out for the Dan Browns and E.L. Jameses of the world? The starving poets and struggling playwrights? Not the Supreme Court, which just rejected a challenge to the Google Books program by the Authors Guild, allowing the Second Circuit's pro-Google, anti-literature decision to stand.
In Edmund Spenser's forgotten classic, "The Faerie Queene," the first challenge our hero Redcrosse encounters is "Errour," a demon quite literary:
Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.
Were Spenser penning his epic poem today, he might invert that image; literary monsters don't vomit books and papers vile, they suck them in, as free online texts or $10 pdfs. (To say nothing of the frogs and toads...)
Chief among those beasts, allegorically speaking, is Google Books. With over 25 million books scanned, Google Books has almost out-collected the Library of Congress. Its eventual goal is to gobble up all 130 million distinct titles on the world -- and then to give them away for free, online.
So in this epic battle, who is our Redcrosse, hero for the virtuous, who is our Duessa, that duplicitous schemestress? None other than the Authors Guild and Google, of course.
The Authors Guild has been fighting Google Books almost since the project was announced, more than a decade ago. Yet, unlike Redcrosse, the Authors Guild has been unable to slay the beast Errour (or convince the court's that Google's scanning project violated copyright law.)
The shining knight's latest defeat came on Monday, when the Supreme Court denied the guild's petition for cert. That denial leaves in place the Second Circuit's October ruling, rejecting the authors' claims of "massive copyright infringement."
What divelish arts have such might over true meaning harts, you ask? Fair use, which beguiled the Second Circuit into believing that Google Books supported "the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration" for authors' rights.
The Authors Guild, it's no surprise, was plainly pricked. In a statement, the Guild condemned the Supreme Court's denial:
"Blinded by the public benefit arguments, the Second Circuit's ruling tells us that Google, not authors, deserves to profit from the digitization of their books," said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.
"The price of this short-term public benefit may well be the future vitality of American culture," continued Rasenberger. "Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow's authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America's intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished."
The Guild has been unable to save their authors in distress, and no knight can save their legal arguments now. So, if you see a new book, buy it; don't Google it. It may be the last book ever published.
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