Monday, April 27, 2009

Google gets richer thanks to your tax dollars

For some time now, Google has been scanning millions of books, with the goal of making the contents available as part of its search results. The vast bulk of the books were provided by libraries, largely university libraries (both public and private). A group of publishers and authors filed a class-action suit against Google for copyright infringement (which the legal eagles at Google must have expected). Google, the authors, and the publishers have reached a proposed settlement agreement. (It runs over 130 pages, plus attachments which bring the total to well over 200 pages. I've slogged through it to bring you some highlights.)

Note that the libraries are not parties to the proposed settlement. The libraries, which have preserved the books in question for decades (with the help of our tax dollars), get very little out of this deal. Each library will be allowed to receive and keep one digital copy of any hard-copy book of theirs that Google scanned. And they can make this one copy available via only one single computer at the library. That's it. The libraries cannot provide the digital copy to a potential competitor of Google; nor could the libraries even use their digital copies to create their own consortium digital library.

The settlement allows Google to sell access to these digital books on a subscription basis; so the libraries can buy access to digital copies of their own books, to be made available on more than one computer.

Money that Google collects for access to digital books will be shared with authors and publishers. BUT money will be shared only if the author or publisher of a book still under copyright actually registers the book with a newly created Book Registry. Funds collected for use of un-registered books will be allocated amongst those authors and publishers who do register their own books. Thus, the vast corpus of "orphan" books (books still under copyright, but effectively abandoned by their author and publisher) will be generating money for Google, and for the publishers and authors of other books.

The libraries get nothing from this.

And Google will be able to sell access to public domain books (those whose copyrights have expired), without the need to share receipts with anyone (which is the way public domain books should be treated). BUT a rare public domain book, a hard-to-find book, which may exist in only a couple of libraries...well, shouldn't the library get something for their time and efforts in protecting and maintaining that book?

Shouldn't we, the taxpayers who supported those libraries and made the preservation of the books possible, get something from this?

Instead, Google gets a free pass to profit from the decades of work by librarians. The libraries and library-patrons get next-to-nothing.

Oh, and by the way, Google effectively has a monopoly on all those digital books. The only way for competition to appear would be for some other company to start scanning books, get sued by authors and publishers, and then settle with the authors and publishers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wall Streeters can't mind own store, so critics???

Brooks Barnes reported in yesterday's New York Times that Wall Street analysts, who were unable to prognosticate the downfall of their own businesses, are now acting as film critics. They are down-grading their ratings on Disney because they don't believe the movie Up will be a hit. (Up is produced by Pixar, which Disney acquired for billions a few years back.)

And these folks are to be believed why?

Even the experts producing the movies have difficulty in forecasting the success of a film. Back in the mid 1970s, every studio in Hollywood turned down Star Wars. Fox finally took it on, but never truly believed in it; Fox was sure their big hit for 1977 would be Damnation Alley (which I'm sure you all remember). They distributed Star Wars just to have something to ride the sci-fi wave that Damnation Alley would create for them. In fact, Fox was so sure there was no future for Star Wars, they negotiated a deal that let George Lucas retain all merchandise rights and all sequel rights. We all know how that ended up. Similar stories could be told about many blockbusters and many flops.

Barnes also suggests that Wall Street is worried because Pixar seems not to care about the marketplace. Barnes reports that Pete Doctor, the director of "Up", has said that the film's commercial prospects never crossed his mind. And that Pixar co-founder John Lasseter regularly says that marketability is not a factor in deciding what pictures to produce.

And Wall Streeters really believe that? Pixar has yet to produce a flop. The Pixar folks seem to have an inherent sense of what will sell, which is primarily a good story with intriguing characters. The Pixar folks don't have to think consciously about marketability, because it seems to be ingrained. Remember, "marketing" is figuring out what the public needs or wants, and providing same to them. If the public wants stories and characters, then the Pixar folk are right on the ball.

I suppose if the Wall Street gang had accurately predicted their own melt-down, I might be more willing to believe them when it came to movies.