Saturday, February 21, 2009

Robert Darnton is a fool

Robert Darnton, a University Professor at Harvard is presumably not stupid, but he is certainly short-sighted.

This is about the proposed Google settlement. Darnton is upset that the tremendous repository of out-of-print (but in copyright) material being scanned by Google will not be made available free to all comers. Google is proposing to have one free-access terminal in every library, but that isn’t good enough for Darnton. He thinks there should be unlimited free access.

Let’s think about this a moment. We’re talking about books that some library somewhere bought a single copy of. Google, upon scanning these books, is enabling (in theory) simultaneous free access to that book by one person in every library in the United States. This is already an outrage from the point of view of the publisher and author of that out-of-print work, because if every library in the country had bought a copy of the book in the first place, the book would have been a financial success and might still be in print.

But on top of the very real injury of giving free access to every library, Darnton is proposing the additional insult that everyone everywhere ought to have free access. He further asserts that this is somehow in keeping with some great foundational principle of our nation. The Founding Fathers, though, had another idea. They thought that creators ought to be compensated as an incentive to further creation and invention. And so they created copyright and patent rights. Darnton seems to think that creators will keep on writing books with no hope of ever being paid for their work. Why would they do that? Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

No, the Google settlement is already bad enough. We don’t need fools like Darnton lobbying to make it even worse.


Anonymous said...

If those books were GOOD, they wouldn't be out of print and every library surely would have bought a copy. And if the scanned repository is linked to a print-on-demand system, there's a chance to make money precisely because books will be available to a huge audience; there are still plenty of people who prefer a real paper thing to text on the screen. That's a chance for exposure.

You think that writers write to get money. I think they write to share ideas - to be read.

Dick Margulis said...


Here's the problem. SOME writers write to share ideas. SOME writers write for money (my quoting Dr. Johnson was not meant to suggest that I completely concur, only that the idea has been around for a long time).

Similarly, SOME publishers stand to benefit from, as you say, the greater exposure. SOME publishers will be driven out of business, because the nature of their books is such that accessing a snippet online is all that is needed (as with certain types of reference works).

A system that benefits one class of writers and publishers at the expense of driving a significant fraction of writers and publishers out of business is not a well thought out system and does not, on balance, provide the benefit to society that Professor Darnton supposes it will.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't see how a publisher can be driven out of business by this scheme. If the book is out of print it's either because the publisher is already out of business and nobody else is interested in the book (in which case exposure is good); or the publisher still exists but the revenue is not worth the trouble (maybe the book is for a niche market - in which case they again benefit from increased awareness).

Another aspect of exposure is international awareness. Have you never heard of people unpopular at home but famous abroad?..

As for reference works, they are good while up-to-date. If a dictionary is out of print, it's probably 5 or more years old. As a translator, I don't need it because the language moved on. If I have access to the Internet, I'd go to the British National Corpus or blogs or news sites which reflect the current state of the language, not to a library of outdated books. And if I work offline and need some snippets, I make sure I have the paper book at hand. Same for science: if a book is no longer sold, it means a new edition is out. So I don't see how those publishers will suffer either.

Dick Margulis said...


Everything you say sounds perfectly reasonable from the point of view of SOME authors and publishers. However, the settlement is being imposed on ALL authors and publishers. My argument is that it should not be imposed on anyone without taking additional points of view into account.

From this point forward, there is no incentive for any library to purchase any book once one other library has purchased it. Given that reality, there is no reason to publish a book with a niche audience, because the publisher has no hope of selling more than one copy. This means that, however much the author wants to disseminate an idea, its likelihood of being disseminated through commercial publication is essentially nil. So only lowest-common-denominator mass market books are going to be published.

Your presumption about why a book is out of print is unfounded. There are many other reasons that may be the case. However, it's the copyright owner's right to decide when and if to take a book out of print or to bring it back into print. That decision should not be made by Google or by a librarian.

This is an issue of basic fairness. Google has decided it has the power to rewrite copyright law and nobody had better stand in its way. That's wrong.

Let's go back to something fundamental. When a library purchases a copy of a physical book, only one person at a time can read that book. If a patron of another library wants to read the book, it can be lent, but there is still only one person reading the book. This is critically important to publishers of most books worth reading, because sales to libraries often constitute the bulk of the total sales for a book (excluding commercial bestsellers, which are few and far between).

If you remove the incentive for libraries to purchase books, you remove the incentive for publishers to publish books. And what's the author to do in that case—just post everything on a blog and be done with it?

You seem to want to look at everything from a very narrow point of view and not consider the rights and needs of other players. I think that's unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be confusing past and present. In the past, if a library wanted a book, it bought it while it was in print. To buy it now, you have to buy second-hand which is an effort. In the future, libraries will buy books anyway because there is no guarantee that the book will go out of print and become available for free - thus no real opportunity of saving money.

For this argument, I found the following materials useful:

On the whole, this is a topic for a proper conversation and I'd rather talk to you about it over a nice dinner :-) So we can stop here.

And yes, my view is narrow: I'm young and a big fan of all things new, which may very well be unfortunate. But what is more unfortunate is that you, with all your wisdom, can call someone a fool behind their back. I've been looking up to you for over two years, reading your blog with great interest, but I'm not with you on this one. Sorry.

Good luck and keep writing! :-)

Dick Margulis said...


You're welcome to dinner any time you make it to New Haven.

I encourage you to broaden your view beyond your felt self-interest to include the justified interests of all concerned. Society functions better that way, I think.

As to calling Darnton a fool behind his back, I've done no such thing. I've called him a fool in public, in a headline. And if he has a Google Alert set up for his own name, then I assume he is aware of my post.

What prompted the post was his arguing his position in an interview on National Public Radio. That makes him a fair target as a public personage. He is of course welcome to visit here and defend his position.