Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, April 6, 2009

me and the amoral menace

In the Guardian of London, Henry Porter says that “Google is just an amoral menace.” His evidence?

Google presents a far greater threat [than Scribd] to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.

So let me get this straight: if Google/YouTube chooses to take down music videos rather than pay the fees their makers request, this constitutes a boot on the windpipe of the musicians? Moreover, for the musicians there is “nowhere else to go”: YouTube is the only site on the whole internet where music videos may be posted and viewed. (Who knew?) And this situation is so intolerable that “it may be time for the planet's dominant economic powers to focus on the destructive, anti-civic forces of the internet.”

An interesting argument. And presumably Porter would extend this model to other forms of content. For instance, I have recently been asserting my legal claim to the books I wrote that have been scanned by Google Books, according to the (tentative) terms of the Google Book Settlement. If the settlement holds, Google is going to pay me sixty dollars for the right to scan each of my books. (There are some interesting complications regarding terms of distribution that I will write about another time.)

Now, according to Henry Porter, I should have the right to determine my own price for the scanning of my work, and Google should not have the right to refuse to meet my terms. If I demand a thousand bucks per book, then Google needs to fork over, or its boot is on my windpipe and I have every justification for asking the world’s dominant economic powers to intervene to force Google to pay me what I want.

I am so buying this argument.

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