Philip Hensher: Google's book 'deal' has left me confused

I don't like the prospect of someone in another country proposing to fiddle with my ownership of my own books
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The Independent Online

The deadline is 28 January. "Once it is passed," the paper said sternly, "authors' options will narrow considerably." Oh God, I thought. My least favourite situation approaches: the moment to make a decision.

Can't somebody do it for me? The Google Book Settlement has been rumbling on for some time now. Google is basically claiming that, unless it hears otherwise, it can make commercial use of published works. The claim turns copyright law on its head, as far as I can see. The Berne Convention on copyright specifically prohibits registration as a condition of copyright. In this new situation, if a published work is not claimed by anyone, then it seems to revert to Google, in Google's assertion, and it may make it available online. If a book of yours has been digitised online, you will get all of £36 per work as a one-off payment.

I just don't like the sound of it. I don't like the prospect of someone in another country proposing to fiddle with my ownership of my own books.

I don't like the idea of having to pay a lawyer and write letters to demonstrate that it's only for me to exploit my books in the way I choose to. And, at the bottom of it, I think writers have to live and their books ought to be sold. That, at any rate, was my instinctive reaction to the situation.

Then, surprisingly, I heard that the Society of Authors and other authors' groups were in favour of it. They say that it's only like the mechanism for collecting royalties from photocopying – a suggestion which made things worse, since I can't remember ever having had a single payment from that source. I don't believe that people go about photocopying whole novels anyway, though I do think that people might conceivably download a digitised novel from Google onto its Kindle or dongle, or whatever infantilised term is currently describing the technology.

But then if you refuse and opt out, are you being an old fart and leaving yourself out of a new means of distribution? And, it turns out, if you do opt out, you can't subsequently change your mind, and you can't make further legal representations in the American courts. My agent wrote a sensible letter saying that they weren't going to advise me to do one thing or the other – I suppose because all options seemed so terrible.

Oh God. So I did what every professional author does in a serious legal pickle: I went on Facebook.

A certain amount of pickle in a high state of ferment was already brewing on Facebook, with dozens of other authors wittering away. What shall we do? One said her agent had been decisive and taken a decision for her. Lucky her. Another had had lunch with someone who actually understood it. We clustered round, electronically. You could opt in but then – this was the clever part – remove every single one of your titles from Google's list.

That sounded like a brilliant solution. But then it became apparent that Google was saying it had "no obligation" to honour a request like that. Could that be true? Someone else chipped in. "I haven't researched this properly at all. Better get the agent onto it." Somebody who I don't know at all said that 'Hari' was opting in "and he's usually right about this sort of thing". A distinguished novelist with a level head said that we ought to stay in for the time being. Another, also level-headed, said that she was considering opting out, and Open Access might be all right for academics but not for novelists.

The time for decision approaches. I just know when the music stops, I'm going to find myself faffing around hopelessly with the other indecisives. Someone, somewhere, tell me what to do.

Works of art the world is better without

Michael Landy, the artist who once destroyed all his possessions as a performance piece, is at it again. This time, he has invited artists to bring along the least favourite of their works. He will look at it, and if he himself likes it, he promises to destroy it.

If only we could extend this excellent idea to the works of artists from the past, and, indeed, to museum collections. I would happily toss away that Matisse Snail from the Tate. I passionately adore Stubbs, but there's an almost incredibly stupid painting by him in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge of a girl simpering over a lion. The destruction of that, I think, would probably enhance his reputation. Or that lurid William Holman Hunt in Manchester of a goat wandering through the desert – that can go.

There might be a case for a sinister parallel to the "Friends" organisations which prop up our museums' finances. What about a Landy-headed "Enemies of the National Museums"? You pay, say, 100 quid subscription a year, and every so often, one lucky member is chosen to destroy a work of art nominated by the curators of a major museum. I can't believe that the curators of the Victoria and Albert museum, say, couldn't find a majolica pot, a Sixties kaftan or a Bauhaus penholder they weren't all united in detesting. Good for Michael Landy: we'll be forced to articulate why, exactly, we think some of these things should not be destroyed.

Is this why the hunt for bin Laden has failed?

Whenever the FBI say that they have used "cutting-edge" technology to attain any end whatsoever, we should probably worry. That was exactly the claim they used in producing a computer-aged photograph of Osama bin Laden. This is what he would look like now, they said, if he had shaved his beard back. Over in Spain, we like to think, the wife of a distinguished former leader of a major political party called to him: "Gaspar, that Osama bin Laden, he has exactly your hair these days, you know..."

The result was less cutting-edge than a comedy layout by a work-experience student on OK! magazine. The computer technicians of the FBI had been unable to imagine what the hair might look like. So they had gone on to the internet, found a picture of a random 52-year-old man, and stuck his hair on Osama's face.

Alas, their random find turned out to be Senor Gaspar Llamazares, a prominent Spanish politician. He didn't see the funny side, and has asked the FBI for an explanation.

He is waiting, and may well be waiting for some time, since there doesn't seem to be any possibility of a rational explanation. If the FBI can't tell the difference between the appearance of a left-wing Spanish medical professional and a Saudi fundamentalist, that may explain why, for years, they've been rooting so fruitlessly through the Hindu Kush for their No 1 target. Those foreigners – they all look the same, eh?

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