Authors suing libraries. Part One—Just who is being tacky?

Recently, I retweeted a link to an article about a number of authors and writers’ organisations who were suing a group of US libraries for copyright infringement. A discussion ensued with a Twitterer about whether this act made writers look bad.

My initial response was that I thought it made libraries look bad to be infringing copyright. But as the (very civilised) discussion unfolded I realised I didn’t know enough about what these libraries, under the umbrella name of the Hathi Trust, were trying to achieve and why they were being sued.

I figure if I’m going to argue robustly for or against a thing, I should at least understand it. So I started researching.

The first thing I learned was that I’d managed to conflate the issue of the Hathi Trust with the issue of Google Books, whose agreement with authors’ groups about how to manage its approach to digitising every book ever has come a cropper in the US Supreme Court. They are two different things, although linked.

Here is my attempt to unravel it all in plain English and offer my opinion as I go.

Google Books

It started when Google decided it wanted to scan every single book ever, including ones that were still under copyright to the original authors. The motive may have been noble—to preserve the world’s writing and make it accessible to everyone—but there was an undeniable commercial aspect, to sell books.

Google Books’ own FAQ says the following:

Are there any benefits for the general public?
Yes. If the Amended Settlement is approved, United States users will be able to search, preview and buy millions of Out-of-Print books that cannot be found in most bookstores and libraries. In addition, each public library building will have a terminal at which users can search for, read and, if the library is able, print out pages from Books in the Google database.

It does sound good in principle, but it’s important to remember that Out of Print is not the same as Out of Copyright, and with the opportunities offered by digital publishing, many rights holders may soon be making out of print books available digitally themselves or through digital publishers without the assistance of Google Books.

However, even those who are not planning to self-reprint digitally have moral and legal rights to what happens to their work, even their out of print work.

To break that down into the personal: the Google Books approach means that Google might scan a digital version of one of my out of print books (like Witch Honour, which was published in the US), without my permission, and then make that available digitally to people who wanted it.

This is despite the fact that I could (and have now) made that book available digitally myself.

I would have had no say in the Google process, though I could (if I knew they’d done it) opt out of it later. Google Books expected to be able to sell copies and send me a cut (if they knew who or where I was) without allowing me to negotiate a price or any other aspect of publication.

Naturally, a whole bunch of people and organisations opposed this model, including non-US authors. The French government, for example, sued to protect the cultural and intellectual property of their citizens. Then they began their own project. More on that later.

Anyway, that idea was challenged in the courts by the Authors Guild (USA). A settlement was reached. The US writers groups were happy enough, but the court has knocked it back as inadequate. The judge felt that the settlement, even though agreed to by all parties, gave Google a monopoly and broke laws pertaining to copyright and anti-competetive behaviour.

At this point in time, no writers groups are suing Google Books, but the Authors Guild and Google Books will have to review their agreement and try it at the courts again.

The Hathi Trust

As part of the earlier Google Books settlement, Google gave up the idea of digitising books they had labelled as ‘orphans’.

‘Orphaned’ books are still subject to copyright law, but Google could not find the official copyright holders. Not being located did not mean the copyright holders were not still out there and entitled to their copyright, of course: only that Google hadn’t found them.

This is where the Hathi Trust steps into the story. This group of five US university libraries recently decided to publish those orphaned works, having obtained the relevant digitised files from Google. This means the Hathi Trust could be giving away copies of books, without the writers and copyright holders getting payment they are entitled to, and possibly interfering with actual contracts and agreements currently under negotiation for still-living authors to release e-books.

Overseas writers were particularly horrified by this. How, for example, was a Japanese or French or Eritrean writer to know their book had been scanned, let alone considered orphaned, in order to assert their copyright?

As a result, The Hathi Trust are being sued by several writers and writers’ organisations, including the Australian Society of Authors.

It turns out that often, with only a little bit of effort, many copyright holders of those ‘orphaned’ books can be found quite easily. The ASA and other groups have been finding the parents of these orphans on a fairly regular basis in the last few weeks.

Interestingly, since the I first read about the issue, the Hathi Trust has inched away from elements of it.

Do writers have a right to be paid for their work?

Amazingly, writers are now having to fight in court for their rights to their intellectual property. And they are being called the bad guys for doing so!

To be very clear here: I make my living as a writer and editor. Most of that work is in the corporate sphere, but a growing part of my living is as a writer of books. My intellectual property is how I make my living. If someone’s going to try and take my work and my words away from me, without my permission or a negotiated contract of how much I am to be paid for my work, I’m going to be a bit miffed – and less able to pay my bills.

For writers (and publishers), one of the huge concerns is that if this initiative goes ahead without a challenge, the law is paving a path to a destination where writers may not be entitled to royalties. A precedent like that could also affect the intellectual property rights of academics, musicians, software designers and other creative jobs.

Copyright is not the paper and ink

Perhaps many people see digitised information as something that should be free, because so much information on the net is free. It is as though my copyright only exists on paper versions of my work.

My copyright is in the words and the order in which they appear, not in the paper and ink. They start life in digital form on my computer, and go through several transmutations in paper and in digital form until published as a paperback or an e-book. No matter what form it’s in, though, it remains my book.

Do people have problems with the intangible nature of intellectual property? If I was a carpenter who made tables and carved beautiful designs in them, people could see the individual item and see that I had made it with my hands. Nobody would think it was okay to just take it away to put in a museum then sell copies of it and give me a tithe of the proceeds, never giving me a say in the process.

But because my words are intangible, and may appear on paper or a screen or in someone saying them aloud, does this mean my right to say those sentences are mine—and to be paid for them—doesn’t count? If you make a thing with your brain and a keyboard rather than your hands, don’t you still have a say in your work?

But isn’t preserving our cultural heritage a good thing?

Of course the preservation of every nation’s literary and cultural history is important, but that does not mean the Hathi Trust approach is appropriate.

Even with the purest intentions, libraries are better off asking authors for their permission and collaboration. This is exactly what the French Government has done with its Gallica project. Alerted to the need, and the dangers of not meeting that need, to create digital archives, the French are working in collaboration with authors, illustrators and publishers to create a proper, protected repository of texts.

Another issue, which I haven’t yet seen discussed, is whether digital archives will actually last the intended distance. Papyrus has lasted thousands of years; good quality paper hundreds. Paper does deteriorate and a more durable form of record-keeping is needed, but it’s not clear to me that digitised data will meet that need in the long term.

What we currently know about digital data is that the tech keeps changing, that data corrupts and that digital data is vulnerable to magnetic fields. The last time I spoke to an archivist about this issue, some years ago, there were concerns about the future of such a relatively young form of retaining texts and images. Even if advances have been made, we haven’t had a thousand years yet to see how well the archives last. All of this may end up wasted effort.

Writers are interested in the future too. It would just be nice if our right to earn a living from our work wasn’t seen as some kind of vulgar grab for money.

* * *

Come back next time for my interview with Sophie Masson of the Australian Society of Authors about the Hathi Trust, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, the Gallica archiving project and whether patent law is confusing the issue.

Further reading:

See all the parts of this blog series:

Doing It Yourself (with other people)

A little while back, I wrote about self-publishers needing to put in the time and effort to match the excellent work that traditional publishers do in getting a novel ready for publication. That work includes editing, proofreading, cover art and design. (Not to mention expertise, PR contacts and simply taking on all that hard slog so that the author doesn’t have to do it.)

It’s all well and good, you say, to declare that e-book authors need editors and cover designers and whatnot. But where are these persons of skill and virtue?

Good question, I reply to my imagined interrogators, where are they indeed?

So I asked some fabulous and talented people I know for some clues.

Alex Adsett of Alex Adsett Publishing Services says “The absolute best place to start for all this information is the Australian Writers’ Marketplace.  It’s a book and an online database, and invaluable if you’re looking for an editor.” Alex herself provides publishing advice, including contract and rights advice, to all writers.

Clandestine Books, headed by crime writer Lindy Cameron, provides editorial and PR services, including manuscript assessment, too.

Individuals offer editing services as well. Gillian Pollack (author of Life Through Cellophane) is a teacher-editor based in Canberra. Her approach is to work with writers to increase their editing skills. “Editing is part of the writer’s longer journey when they work with me.” You can find her contact details at

Laura Goodin, who Gillian also recommended, has specialised in business and academic writing and may be a good choice if you’re writing a non-fiction book.  Another of Gillian’s recommendations is Elizabeth Fitzgerald. Elizabeth’s website,  Earl Grey Editing, will be active in a week or so. In the meantime, you can email her on for information and her rates.

The divine Davina MacLeod is the freelancer who copyedited The Opposite of Life. She charges by the double-spaced 12-point page and can be contacted on for a quote. Davina also does illustration and can be hired for cover designs.

Twelfth Planet Press publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, says “I hear Sarah Endacott is one of the best editors there are.” Endacott also provides manuscript assessment.

In terms of cover art and design, Lucy Sussex—researcher, reviewer and writer of crime and science fiction—says: “I find my own artists–go to galleries, collect photos, fight like hell with the publisher to get a decent image on the front of the book. It’s worked well so far.”

The previously-mentioned Gillian Pollack recommends Andrew McKiernan of Kephra Design, who designs for Aurealis and designed the cover of Life through Cellophane. Gillian also spoke highly of illustrator Kathleen Jennings in Brisbane.

For printing your book, Paul Collins, writer and publisher at Ford Street Publishing, says “One of the cheapest printers I’ve come across is a print broker called Alfred Hornung of Tingleman Pty Ltd.”   Paul also recommended Ekonvurs for the conversion of print to e-books.

So if you want to get a new cover and do a final polish on the out-of-print book you want to e-publish, or if you’re thinking about self-publishing an original manuscript, visit the websites or get in touch with these persons of skill (and, one assumes, virtue) for some quotes. Work out a budget to make sure your e-book is whipped into the best possible shape, with all of its apostrophes and commas in the right place. Banish those typos and continuity errors to the nether reaches of hell with some expert help and make your book the best it can be.

Review: The Girl Who Was Was On Fire edited by Leah Wilson

This collection of essays about The Hunger Games was an excellent way to follow my five-day binge spent reading the entire series. Everything in this book either brings elements I was aware of into sharp focus or reveals new themes and interpretations to me. With each essay, though, I responded with variations of “Yes! Exactly! YES!”

Favourite essays include:

  • Team Katniss, which questions the whole Team Peeta/Team Gale romance subplot and opts for Team Katniss, The Girl Who Was Compassionate, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
  • Your Heart Is A Weapon the Size of Your Fist by Mary Borsellino, examining love as a political act
  • Carrie Ryan’s Panem at Circenses, with its look at reality TV and The Hunger Games
  • learning about trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in Blythe Woolston’s Bent, Shattered and Mended
  • The Politics of Mockinjay by Sarah Darer Littman, which I found particularly resonant with the lines it draws between current world politics, the packaging of war footage as entertainment and the political tactics of Panem
  • Community in the Face of Tyranny, in which Bree Despain touches on a theme I felt but did not articulate in my original reading.

But this are just my favourites in a collection filled with intelligent, thoughtful and well written insights into this superb trilogy.

Read another review of this essay collection at Bookmarked.

Buy The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy in paperback or the e-book The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.

E is for Exciting!

Today I spoke at the Australian Society of Author’s E-Exchange seminar, an introduction to digital publishing in books and apps. I had a great time talking to everyone, listening to the other guest speakers and meeting writers, artists, agents and other publishing professionals.

Vincenzo Pignatelli of Blue Quoll showed what his company is doing with apps for children’s picture books. Their first book, Mr Wolf and the Ginger Cupcakes, looks gorgeous.  The colours are vibrant and the interactive features are pretty cool. The fact that the book can be translated into seven languages is pretty neat too. Blue Quoll are looking for authors and illustrators to work with, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take the technology.

Splitting Image Colour Studios has been working with traditional publishers for decades, and now they’ve been working on e-publishing for picture books for a few years. These are the guys responsible for the charming adaptations of Graeme Base’s Animalia and Jungle Drums as well as the Four Ingredients cookbook in app form. Director Warren Smith talked about the other projects, including apps, digital books and print on demand books.

Virginia Murdock spoke about, the web-based online e-book seller, associated with Readings Bookstores. For some reason I’d been having trouble getting my head around how worked, as I’d got used to the model where you buy a book and download it to a reader or device., being web-based, simply allows you to buy your books in your browser and download your current book into the cache for reading anywhere. It’s actually very straightforward. And because it’s web-based, you can tweet links to chapter samples, which is a cool function. Just remember to search for book titles through the Readings ebook link.

Another innovative approach is being taken by Jeannette Rowe, writer of extremely popular books for preschoolers. She’s working with partners to develop a whole website with online books, book-related games and other ventures. It’s terrific to see a writer really taking charge of the ditigal aspects of her career and working with others to find the best way to do that. Rowe herself is passionate and firm about standing up for your (digital) rights.

I was on a great group panel that fielded some great questions from the audience, and then illustrator Ann James of Books Illustrated got us all into separate groups to brainstorm aspects of epublishing and promotion, which generated some great ideas for the convenor, the lovely Marie Alafaci to run by the ASA when she gets back to the office on Monday!

The attendees were all pretty neat too. For all the things that book people have to consider with the new technology—especially considering that we have no idea where it’s all going to go—the future of publishing is wide a slightly scary page for us to write a new history onto. Whatever we’re doing with digital publishing in ten years’ time, this is where we are shaping how that decade ahead may look.

My thanks to the Hazel Edwards and the ASA for asking me to speak, to the other speakers for coming along and all the really cool things they are doing, and to those who came along to dip their toes into the digital waters.

Words are like oxygen