Googled to Death

The perils of trying to be topical: this was all accurate enough when written and sent in, but Google pulled the rug from under me by overhauling, updating and generally improving their wretched Settlement site to make the process less frustrating. Thanks to kindly SFX editor Dave Bradley, I was able to slip in a couple of changes before the issue finally went to press. See note at end.

Lately I've been wrestling with the Google Book Settlement, which isn't a summer camp for remedial readers but the hideously complicated result of a US class-action suit brought by the Authors Guild and various publishers against the famous search engine.

Why? Google launched a vast project to scan and digitize whole libraries of books without the fiddling formality of asking permission or clearing rights with mere authors. Years of legal hassle over this led to a not very satisfactory compromise: the October 2008 Settlement, whose terms apply even to writers who've never heard of it and want nothing to do with it.

Though it sounded dreadfully like work, I thought I'd better investigate the website ( for two reasons. First, writers who don't register there get screwed anyway. Second, I was madly curious about whether Google had nefariously converted my books to digital form. Discovering this, it turns out, isn't easy.

As part of the general madness there are three different Settlement deadlines to worry about. If you want to opt out and tell Google not to make free with your work, the cutoff date is 4 September 2009 – approaching fast as I write. If you want to claim your dues under the Settlement, a massive cash bonanza of $60-$300, the deadline is 5 January 2010. And if you've signed up, you have until 5 January 2010 to get your titles removed from Google's book database.

Unless you're really paranoid about snippets from your work turning up via Google searches, the best deal – although opinion is strongly divided on this point – seems to be to opt in, grab any Settlement pittance, and hope Google Books searches will lead to more sales.

So, had the bastards ripped me off? That is: had I, humble and unassuming Langford, been granted this fabulous chance of literary publicity? I signed up at the Settlement website, expecting to search for my name in the catalogue of books scanned without permission. No such luck.

What I actually got was every instance of a David Langford book that Google knew about. (This is where I congratulated myself fervently on not being a John Smith.) Obviously there should be some kind of checkmark against the important titles, the ones Google had digitized? Nope. Before Google will tell you this, you have to click various buttons to assert your right to every title. What with reprints, translations and false alarms like a newsletter listed as a book, I had to plod through well over sixty items.

Right! After doing all that and making the terrifying declaration of claim, I came to a whole new table presentation of those sixty-odd books. Now at last there'd surely be a convenient, reader-friendly checkmark to identify those digitized by Google? Ha bloody ha. You have to click a separate "Details" link for every single title. Only then do you see one of three fateful phrases that map your future destiny:

(1) "Digitized without authorization." – meaning, you have a winner! There could be $60 in this for you.

(2) "Not digitized, and will not be digitized on or before May 5, 2009, without authorization." – meaning, this title isn't relevant to the Settlement, so why on earth didn't they filter it out of the initial search?

(3) "May be digitized on or before May 5, 2009 without authorization." – meaning, since it still said the same months later, that Google is rubbish at keeping its records up to date.

To my surprise, I found three Langford titles in the first category. One is a recent SF essay collection, one is a small-press fiction chapbook of incredible obscurity, and one is a nonfiction collaboration from the 1980s. This also confirmed that you need to click every Details link – if there are many editions, "Digitized without authorization" appears only against the particular ones Google chose to scan.

After which, if you've also contributed short stories/essays to books, it gets more complicated. The Google Settlement calls such puny little things "Inserts", and there's no way to search for your name. Instead, you must search by title or editor, and (even more fiddly) give the page range of every "Insert" before discovering whether Google scanned this one. My list of such Langford contributions to books runs to 158 items. Life is too short.

The latest is that the US Department of Justice has opened a new investigation of the Settlement that might just overturn the whole thing. In which case my efforts were a total waste of time....

David Langford doesn't feel very settled.

The last-minute revision, besides changing a word or two in the text, replaced the above tagline with:

David Langford discovered, weeks after sending this in, that Google has since overhauled the site, fixed some irritating problems, and admitted they've scanned all those "May be digitized" titles. Argh!

Since then, following the US Department of Justice intervention, the Settlement has been somewhat revised. Here's a summary at the SFWA site.