Why I'm opting-out of the Google Book Settlement

After much consideration I am opting out of the Google Book Settlement. While I still hope that Google's entry into selling content will make it more aware of the needs of content creators everywhere, I think the current structure is short-sighted and destructive. The information ecology will be hurt more than it will be helped.

Some of my objections come because of the nature of my genre, books rich with equations aimed at technical practitioners. They are long on details and short on narrative arcs. Many readers pick and choose the sections they need to complete a project after purchasing the book for just these sections.

My understanding is that the settlement will allow Google to distribute up to 20% of a book as some kind of fair ue. While 20% may be a good tease for novels, it is a full helping from any book assembled from pieces that don't need to be consumed together. I've experienced the pleasure of reading just the right 20-30 pages from a technical book on Google's system and it frightens me.

This approach is ultimately very short-sighted. While I understand the affection people have for the Wikipedia and the snippets of answers that appear on websites for free, I'm already noticing that there are fewer and fewer books that attempt to straighten out some facts and put them in some semblance of order. There are a number of times in the last few years when I've wished that O'Reilly could afford to publish a book on a topic. Reproducing 20% of reference works without compensating the person who organized them is often celebrated as "cutting out the middle man" and "disintermediation" these days, but I'm afraid it's going to leave us with a rat's nest of facts.

This jumble of details might be acceptable if the automated search engines could parse them and give them some order, but I think this is expecting more than the technology can deliver. I find that using a search engine requires running through a sequence of terms that sometimes leads to an answer but often just leaves me in a maze of link farms trying to make money off of click-through advertisement.

I don't want to speak too definitely about many of the other good objections that people raise about the settlement. The concentration of power is a concern for everyone except Google stock holders. The fact that we are even forced to even opt out on our own makes me wonder whether it is now fair to just steal someone's car and leave a note with a promise to return it when anyone objects. Larry Lessig's long argument for making the book the atomic unit helped catalyze my thoughts.

Over the years the engineers in Silicon Valley developed a grudging appreciation for the system architects and elegant coders who were able to reduce a problem to a simple but powerful mechanism. I hope that the programmers at Google will begin to realize that books are another example of how the synthesis and curation of knowledge needs to be recognized and rewarded.

The last 20 years has been very exciting for the web but I'm afraid we're heading toward the same realization that gripped the settlers on the Great Plains once they realized that the buffalo herds would not last forever. The great free sources on the Internet depend upon the hard work of book authors who used to be able to pay for the costs of writing when the customers shared the costs. It wasn't a perfect system, but it was a reasonable approximation. The Google Book Settlement is a start toward building a system for rewarding information synthesis on the web, but I'm afraid it doesn't go far enough to earn my support.