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Authors Against the Future

The Supreme Court has made it clear [1] that foreign book editions can be legally resold in this country, and the authors’ lobby is upset [2]. Authors Guild president Scott Turow opens a rambling NYT op-ed [3] this way:

Last month, the Supreme Court decided [4] to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright. Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties. This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.

But the way Turow characterizes the situation just isn’t remotely true. Most had assumed foreign editions were covered by fair use protections and the court’s decision just reinforced that. He then claims, somewhat confusingly, “the value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated.” That’s right if he means the ability to enforce copyrights has diminished, but the protections afforded by them have never been greater.

Rob Pegoraro tries to sort it out [5]: “I’m not unsympathetic to the underlying business-model problem. But that’s what it is–not one of weak laws, as Turow suggests. We’ve now had 15-plus years of proof that laws (and DRM) are weak barriers to copyright infringement in a system built for near-frictionless data transfer.” Makes sense to me.

The rest of Turow’s op-ed is devoted to Google-bashing and his imagining of a bleak totalitarian future in which libraries lend e-books. He’s very concerned that people are googling “Scott Turow free e-books,” implying the search engine is an accomplice to piracy, but as Mike Masnick points out, nobody is doing that [6]. The whole op-ed is a complete mess; a kernel of legitimate grievance surrounded by overheated complaining about technological inevitabilities.

I’m a firm believer in supporting worthwhile writing and music, and I also believe that if you care about those things you have a responsibility to do so. That’s why I’m such a fan of Chris Ruen’s work [7] on copyright, though I can’t agree with some of his prescriptions. The Authors Guild’s job in this day and age is more or less to oppose any innovation at all—they went after Amazon’s text-to-speech software on copyright grounds, and Turow recently criticized [8] its acquisition of Goodreads—but to be convincing, it will have to provide more substantive arguments, and more effective solutions, than this dispatch from the “old-man-yells-at-cloud dept [6].”

In other authorial news, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is out today. Donate [9] $50 to TAC and receive a signed copy, and head over to Rod’s blog [10] for updates on his book tour.

Follow @j_arthur_bloom [11]

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#1 Comment By spite On April 9, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

There might be Scott Turow books on places like piratebay, but the people that would download his kind of books instead of paying for them you can probably count on one hand. I imagine that most downloads are by teenagers who cannot afford to pay for the movies or people in poor countries where the cost of a movie is a serious budget constraint and would not pay if even if there was not a single download anywhere.

Asking for huge government resources to be expended to go after some downloaders when they are really no societal menace, it really is a waste.

#2 Comment By hetzer On April 9, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

>The rest of Turow’s op-ed is devoted to Google-bashing and his imagining of a bleak totalitarian future in which libraries lend e-books.

To be fair, I think that may one day happen. But it will be a case of a business-model problem (or the idea that libraries *need* a business model) and not because we don’t summarily execute copyright infringers.

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On April 9, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

This is about as silly as yelling at Amazon because it’s now so much easier to find used copies of Turow’s books (at cheap, cheap prices).

Technological changes–>changes in business models. Adapt or die.

#4 Comment By Joseph Dooley On April 9, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

Turow’s “totalitarian” future is already here. I’ve been downloading audiobooks from my county library’s website for the past 3 years. Usually there’s a waiting list in the dozens for the more popular books. Despite the library patrons, those books still sell successfully.

#5 Comment By Flavius On April 9, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

Who d0esn’t dread the Google future. Thought surveillance is upon us and Government in the fear state is not going to pass on the opportunities Google and the other search engines offer to both avail itself of your inner space and obscure the fact that it is availing itself. Win, win for it and Google, lose for most everyone else. As far as I am aware, subpoena is the standard although I may be wrong about that, one sees so little on this topic in the mainstream. Copyright infringement is going to be among the least of our worries.

#6 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 9, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

Authors aren’t getting paid for foreign imports? If so, they need to have a word with their publishers–the Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc rather clearly only applies to legal overseas copies, not to pirated ones. Importing pirated works is still illegal.

Turow may be upset that authors and publishers won’t find it easy to price discriminate (charging US consumers more for the same book than they charge consumers overseas) and legally block the inevitable arbitrage that results, but tough nuts for them. And of course, authors have been trying to shut down domestic secondary markets for more than a century, to little avail. (Ebooks being one potential exception).

Were Ford to attempt and bar resale of used cars on the grounds that their poor engineers and machinists were getting screwed out of their hard-earned dollars every time someone opted for a used F150 over a shiny new one, they would be laughed at. But this is essentially the argument that authors try to make with a straight face–that copyrighted works are different, and ought to be impaired post-sale, despite longstanding legal precedent that impairment of chattels is a bad thing to do.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 10, 2013 @ 2:58 am

Actually, my Ford analogy isn’t too far off. While such a thing would be absurd here, other countries do exactly this. Japan, for instance, has [12] for automobiles (far tougher than anything that any domestic state DEQ imposes), that essentially keeps vehicles of more than 3 years or so of age, off the road. Not only does a secondary market for automobiles scarcely exist; but Japanese motorists are unable to enjoy their domestic manufacturers’ reputations for quality and reliability–it frequently is cheaper to abandon an automobile and buy a new one, then it is to spend the hundreds of thousands of yen necessary to recondition an automobile to pass the inspections.

Of course, abandoned automobiles are then sold for foreign export–if you live in a left-hand drive country and buy a used Toyota from a dealership, its original owner might have been Japanese.

#8 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 10, 2013 @ 2:59 am

if you live in a left-hand drive country and buy a used Toyota from a dealership, its original owner might have been Japanese.

That should say, “if you live in a country where traffic moves on the left” (such as Japan or the UK, but not the US)…

#9 Comment By FL Transplant On April 10, 2013 @ 9:34 am

I would think the problem Mr Turow cites could be easily solved going forward–authors/their agents need to negotiate the contracts covering their foreign publishing rights to ensure they are paid appropriate royalities on any English language copies imported into the US (I doubt Mr Turow is concerned about Korean language copies of his works imported into the US, for instance–that would be an incredibly small market.)

#10 Comment By Michael Powe On April 14, 2013 @ 12:41 am

Most of the great literature in western countries was written before anything like serious enforcement of copyright. Can you really point to any present-day works that will still be read by the time the current 120 or so years (author’s life + 70 years) has expired? Millions of copyrighted works are accumulating in digital storage that neither your grandkids nor mine will ever read.

The author has reasonable expectation that he can derive suitable income from the sale of his work. But it’s entirely unreasonable to expect the gov’t to spend millions to protect every single nickel the author might get. Complaints from the modern counterpart to the 19th C’s Mrs. Henry Wood (a turgid and unreadable middlebrow writer very popular in the late 1800s) fall on deaf ears here.

If the millionaire Turow is really concerned about his “revenue stream,” I suggest he focus on writing books that will sell this year and have staying power to continue selling in years to come.