Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken has been one of the most unflappable proponents of the Google Book Search settlement, but yesterday, January 20, at an antisettlement event at the National Writers Union New York headquarters, Aiken grew increasingly exasperated as he addressed an audience hostile to the settlement, and occasionally hostile to him. Aiken drew a polite laugh at the outset when he quipped that he was happy to address “the axis of opposition,” but soon after finishing his by now well-rehearsed informational talk regarding the deal, sparks flew.
The NWU, vocal opponents of the settlement, co-sponsored the “workshop” with two other organizations opposed to the settlement, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. The panel also featured literary agent and attorney Lynn Chu and New York Law School’s James Grimmelmann.
In his balanced talk, Grimmelmann, the only neutral voice on the panel, outlined three major points for audience members to consider when evaluating the deal: the settlement as a new publishing model; the deal’s alignment of authors’ and readers’ interests; and its implications for copyright policy. He soberly evaluated the benefits and potential risks of the deal, telling members that in his opinion Google probably would have won on its fair use defense had the issue been litigated, but expressed some reservations about such a major player in the book world being created through a class action lawsuit, rather than through the market.
Then the fun began. Chu wasted no time blasting the deal. She called it a travesty, illegal, and characterized it as a bad business arrangement that eliminates the market process and turns the opt-in system of copyright on its ear. She veered out of control, however, when it came to the details of the agreement, twice insisting there was no orphan works issue, and suggested the Book Rights Registry was designed to foment rights disputes, not solve them. An exasperated Aiken scolded Chu for her “vivid imagination,” as well as NWU’s Edward Hasbrouck for his interpretation of the agreement, and the workshop descended into moments of chaos.
The event was certainly a lively conversation. Rather than clarifying the issues at hand, however, the talk left audience members PW spoke to even more confused about what to do, with just one week to go before the January 28 opt-out deadline. It also hinted at perhaps the major obstacle, besides the Department of Justice, facing the deal as it makes its way toward the February 18 fairness hearing: its scope and sheer complexity. With just weeks to go before the hearing, it seems many rank-and-file authors are just now beginning to wrestle with the deal's implications, and despite months of events to explain the agreement, confusion and misunderstanding are still common.