Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I think I've used this picture before. This article originally appeared in the 9.22.11 issue of Metroland.

If you’re one of my 1300+ “friends” on Facebook, you know that I’m a frequent, perhaps compulsive, poster of unusual, funny, and informative stuff. I’ve defended Facebook here from time to time when some silly rumor pops up about some evil the service is about to commit, and I’ve rolled with the changes that get imposed on us, because mostly these changes have been either benign or they actually improve the experience, once you get used them. I dare say that Facebook has made my life more varied and interesting, and allowed many actual friendships I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

This morning (Wednesday) I logged on to find new changes that are neither benign nor do they improve the service. The first thing I see is a bunch of posts that Facebook has decided must be "important" to me. As the man said about the thermos, “how do it know?” Well, Facebook doesn’t know, and for it to presume it can prioritize my interests via some algorithm,is bizarre and, I guess, funny if it weren’t so absurd. Then, to make matters worse, they’ve stuck what they call a “ticker” on the right hand side of the page, a little box that streams friends’ comments or something. I haven’t bothered to find out what the “ticker” does, because it’s always moving as new things get added and it is distracting and annoying as hell. And as far as I can tell, you can’t elect to turn either of these truly useless features off.

Suddenly, the clean and utilitarian site is starting to feel like MySpace: dirty and cluttered and embarrassing. Just a few hours in, there are reports of rage among lots of users. I’m seeing universally angry comments. While every Facebook change gets panned, the past changes have just taken some getting used to or they've been readily disabled. The criticism quickly dies down. That’s not the case this time, and one wonders if Facebook is gonna back off this nonsense.

If it doesn’t, it’s going to take a hit. For the last couple of months I’ve been wondering why anyone would spend time on Google+, a newly hatched Facebook competitor. Facebook worked fine, and one social network seems like more than enough for a human to deal with. But today, I know I’m not alone in thinking Google+ is looking pretty good.

Moving on. The Author’s Guild is a trade association that claims to represent the interests of professional writers. If I were a member, I’d be quitting in disgust right about now. The organization (which is leading the ridiculous lawsuit against Google Books, a case that’s ongoing) just sued five major universities (Cornell and the Universities of Michigan, California, Indiana, and Wisconsin) for embarking on a project to make available for digital text searching any “orphan works” in their collections. “Orphan works” are out-of-print books that might have copyright protection attached to them, but the copyright owner cannot be identified or located.

Basically, the librarians at these colleges became impatient with both Congress (which has considered, but been unable to pass an orphan works law that would protect anyone copying an orphan work) and the pace of the Google Books lawsuit (where orphan works are a central issue). As these books are all out of print and many irreplaceable, the librarians wanted to digitally preserve the books for posterity, and at the same time allow the public to search the digital archive for key words. The librarians were not allowing the reading or downloading of the orphan works, just text searching.

And so the Author’s Guild is suing the librarians' colleges to stop the project, accusing them of willfully trampling on authors’ rights and causing them irreparable harm. Pathetic. How, exactly, is an author of an out-of-print book being harmed? How are society’s interests (remember, the purpose of copyright law is the betterment of society) being harmed by these librarians?

Shortly after the lawsuit commenced, the Authors Guild announced that it had located one of the orphan works' authors from a Google search. The Guild website is crowing about this (and mischaracterizing what the librarians are doing and what the lawsuit is about) in a manner more befitting Fox & Friends than an organization that is supposed to be protecting the interests of the best and brightest among us.

One librarian posted an open letter to the author, pointing out that the book in question, long out of print, had not even been checked out of the librarian’s library in over 15 years, and now was in deep storage. He summarized the libraries’ goal for the digitization project as “to make it easier for readers to find works like your novel, which might otherwise languish on shelves or in large warehouses of books. Digital access to low-use titles through our catalogs will encourage users to discover resources, for study and for entertainment, that they might not have bothered with before.”

The Authors Guild should be ashamed of itself.


At 10:48 PM, Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

Yay, librarians.
goodness, it's good that I'm a Luddite. i have a couple Facebook pages, but I use them infrequently, and nothing in these changes will inspire me to use it more often.


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