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by Paul Rapp on September 22, 2011

If you’re one of my 1,300-plus “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 the changes either have been  benign or actually improve the experience once you get used to them. I daresay that Facebook has made my life more fun and interesting.

This morning (Wednesday), I logged on to find a bunch of new changes that are neither benign nor improvements. Rather than list all of one’s friends’ posts in real time, the first thing you 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, it doesn’t know, and for Facebook to presume it can prioritize my interests is bizarre. I guess it would be 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 is distracting and annoying as hell. As far as I can tell, you can’t elect to turn either of these truly useless features off.

Suddenly, the fairly clean and utilitarian service is starting to feel like MySpace: dirty, cluttered and embarrassing. Just a few hours in, there are reports of massive rage among users. I’m seeing universally angry comments. While every change usually gets panned because they’re sprung without warning, usually they just take some getting used to or are readily disabled, and 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 active 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 better and better.

Moving on. The Author’s Guild is a trade association that purports to represent the interests of professional writers. If I were a member, I’d be quitting in disgust right about now. The organization (which led the ridiculous lawsuit against Google Books, a case that’s ongoing) just sued five major universities (the universities of Michigan, California, Indiana and Wisconsin, along with Cornell) 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 of the book 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 are 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 keywords. 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 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 were doing) in a manner more befitting Fox and 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 been checked out of the librarian’s library in more than 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.