The Phantom Menace

Is Scott Turow, in 2013, seriously trying to raise the specter of electronic piracy as a threat to authors’ livelihoods?

And there are many e-books on which authors and publishers, big and small, earn nothing at all. Numerous pirate sites, supported by advertising or subscription fees, have grown up offshore, offering new and old e-books free.

The pirates would be a limited menace were it not for search engines that point users to these rogue sites with no fear of legal consequence, thanks to a provision inserted into the 1998 copyright laws. A search for “Scott Turow free e-books” brought up 10 pirate sites out of the first 10 results on Yahoo, 8 of 8 on Bing and 6 of 10 on Google, with paid ads decorating the margins of all three pages. . . .

Google is also at odds with many writers because in 2004 it partnered with five major libraries to scan and digitize millions of in-copyright books, without permission from authors. The Authors Guild (of which I am president) sued; years later, with a proposed settlement scuttled by the judge, the litigation goes on.

Google says this is a “fair use” of the works, an exception to copyright, because it shows only snippets of the books in response to each search. Of course, over the course of thousands of searches, Google is using the whole book and selling ads each time, while sharing none of the revenue with the author or publisher.

Just try to read the “whole book” via Google search, I dare you. If you can manage to get any enjoyment from that, you are a person a much greater fortitude than I.

But seriously, numerous studies have indicated that piracy and book previewing have, if anything, sold more books for authors. (There’s a reason that Amazon, which if it knows how to do anything knows how to sell books, aggressively promotes having publishers preview books on its site.) Didn’t we already have this whole debate with music, a commodity that lends itself far more to electronic piracy and dispersal than books?

The point of Turow’s op-ed is that in an Internet age, there are now more ways to suck the livelihood out of authors than ever before (even though all the piece does is rant about piracy and copyright), but I really think it’s the opposite. The Internet has opened up all sorts of opportunities for authors to get paid writing for publications they never would have known existed otherwise, not to mention all of the electronic-only venues that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It has hugely expanded networking and publicity opportunities, allowed entrepreneurial authors to self-publish and sell anything they want (literary or otherwise).

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