John Updike Rallies The Literati

Posted on May 22, 2006

Book Expo was a veritable hotbed of controversy as the technorati and the literati squared off over the issues of technology and copyrights. The issue boils down to this: just because the technology exists for all books to be mashed into a central database, then rearranged and mixed up at will by anyone who feels like it to make a new work (all without either consulting or paying the author a royalty,) should we allow this to happen? Our answer is, of course, a hearty, "Hell, no." And John Updike agrees with us.

The Washington Post reports that Updike was responding to a New York Times Magazine article by Kevin Kelly called "Scan This Book!"
"'When Google announced in December 2004 that it would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was resurrected,' " Updike read. He then followed up with later selections that had, he said, "clarified" Kelly's vision: " 'At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into re-ordered books and virtual bookshelves . . . once created, these "bookshelves" will be published and swapped in the public commons. . . . " 'The new model of course is based on the intangible assets of digital bits, where copies are no longer cheap but free.' "

Reading further, Updike noted Kelly's assertion that "copy-protection schemes" are helpless to hold back the technological tide. "Schemes," he repeated sarcastically, drawing a laugh. As his audience well knew, the Association of American Publishers filed suit last year on behalf of five major publishers alleging that Google's library scanning project is a massive and flagrant violation of copyright law.

Updike went on at some length, heaping scorn on Kelly's notion that authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit from it by selling "performances" or "access to the creator." ("Now as I read it, this is a pretty grisly scenario.")
Updike said in closing, "So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."

One publishing executive who really gets it is HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman who said that just because her company allows Google to search her authors' books, doesn't mean that she's going to allow their works to be scanned into some giant database, chopped up at will and distributed without paying her authors royalties. "I'm very bullish on everything digital," she said, but "we are going to control the destiny of our digital files. Right on, Jane.