Ursula K. Le Guin and the Tragedy of the Copyright Commons

Via TechDirt, Ursula K. Le Guin has resigned from the Authors Guild in protest of their decision to no longer categorically oppose settlement with Google. The Authors Guild was an original plaintiff in the massive class action suit against Google’s book scanning project, and is now negotiating a controversial settlement agreement.

I was sad to see her take such a stance. I was never a die-hard Le Guin fan, but I have very fond memories of checking Wizard of Earthsea out for the first time from my middle school library. Her science fiction is great too, and she is undoubtedly an icon of the genre; I love the fact that, forty years after she invented the ansible, other authors still use the devices in their books, even borrowing the same technological constraints that Le Guin used, as if ansibles were somehow a common heritage of all scifi universes.

That always struck me as a small but delightful example of the benefits provided by a robust intellectual commons — that there can be such spontaneous collaborations between authors, many years apart, and that we can create these common cultural reference points. After all, Sherlock Holmes’ popularity today is not due to the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the only one person who ever got to say what happened to him.

But some authors — or their heirs — try to claim that no morsel of their work rightfully belongs to the commons, and that their ideas should die with them. Recently, Philip K. Dick’s daughter threatened to sue Google for naming their phone Nexus One, in a subtle reference to the Nexus-6 replicants, which were a sixth generation model of androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find it indescribably sad that someone should try to claim a copyright to geek cultural heritage.

As the creator of the ansible, Ursula K. Le Guin could, under her view copyright, prohibit other authors from using ansibles in their works, or else sue those authors who do reference them. I do not think anyone could argue that the world would be better off if authors could exercise such a monopoly over their ideas. But what Le Guin advocates would permit authors to do so.

In her resignation from the Authors Guild, she wrote:

You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

What “principles” are involved, in Le Guin’s view? The principle that authors are entitled to recoup all the welfare benefits from their work, into perpetuity? Because that principle has never been listed under the heading of “concept of copyright.” (You might be able to find it under “shameless rent-seeking,” though.)

The Authors Guild’s reply to Le Guin’s resignation has a quote that should be underlined, over and over again:

The lessons of recent history are clear: when digital and online technologies meet traditional media, traditional media generally wind up gutted. Constructive engagement — in this case turning Google’s infringement to our advantage — is sometimes the only realistic solution.

Admittedly, for most industries, it seems that “constructive engagement” has meant lobbying the legislature (or in the Google Books case, the judiciary) for restrictive laws that give creators ridiculous rights that copyright was never intended to protect. Even still, engaging in the opportunities that change provides is always a better response than claiming an entitlement to continue living in The World As It Used To Be.

I do have some pretty huge objections to the Google settlement (who doesn’t?), but they are the same objections the DOJ has, i.e., “class action, copyright and antitrust law[.]” (Okay fine, my personal objections include just those last two. Although if I had any modicum interest in class action suits, I’m sure I’d be very concerned about that first one as well.)

Le Guin’s objections to the Google settlement, however, are not about the creation of an unjustified monopoly power, but rather that she is not going to be the beneficiary of one.


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