Google, Authors Guild Reach Settlement

It took three years, but Google and the Authors Guild reached a settlement in late October 2008 over the search engine’s book digitization project. The deal benefits Google, the authors, and even the publishers, but the real winners are the readers. Keep reading for the details.

First, let’s look at a little history and get a review. Back in 2005, Google began the Google Print Library Project, which aimed to make it easier for searchers to find books relevant to their interests, especially ones that are difficult to find other ways (such as those that are out of print). The search engine began working with the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library and Oxford University to scan all or parts of their book collections. The company’s plan called for making those books searchable and, of course, selling advertisements on the web pages related to book searches.

On September 21, 2005, the Authors Guild filed a lawsuit against Google. They claimed that its scanning and digitizing of library books constituted “a plain and brazen violation of copyright law,” according to Nick Taylor, the guild’s president. In a statement, he insisted that “It’s not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.” Other groups also protested the Google project, including the Association of American University Presses.

It’s interesting, though not surprising, that nobody seemed to notice the kind of care Google tried to take to avoid copyright violations, and even help the authors. For instance, the information searchers could see pertaining to the book differed depending on whether it was copyrighted or had gone into the public domain. Only if the book was out of copyright would searchers be able to view and download the entire book. In most cases, they would see basic bibliographic information about the book, and in many cases, a few sentences showing their search term in context – which is very similar to what searchers see when web sites come up in the results.

But the best part involved Google providing the book with on-the-spot promotion. “In all cases, you’ll see links directing you to online bookstores where you can buy the book and libraries where you can borrow it,” the search engine explained on its page describing the Google Books Library Project. In that sense, it was almost as good as having both a bookstore and a library on your computer, neither of which were limited by physical space as to their contents.

This is  not to say that the authors did not have legitimate concerns. As a writer myself, I firmly believe that creative people need and deserve to be properly compensated for their intellectual property. And that is where the settlement comes in.

Google offers an excellent FAQ that covers the terms of the settlement. The Authors Guild also offers its own page with resources covering all stages of the lawsuit, starting with the documents originally filed and continuing through the 323-page settlement agreement itself. Such lengthy legal agreements are not unusual, but it’s tempting to observe that the document is long enough to be a novel in its own right. At the time of this writing, the settlement is awaiting approval by the courts, but no one seems to expect it to be rejected.

Under the terms of the agreement, Google will pay the authors and publishers $125 million. The search engine notes that “Cash payments will be made for books scanned prior to the deadline for opting out of the settlement. In addition, rightsholders will be paid a share of revenues for future uses of their books.” The Authors Guild’s web site includes detailed advice for authors, and additional information is also available. Anyone with a US copyright interest in one or more books is included in the settlement, so if you’re an author you’ll want to check it out.

Before I tell you how much each author will get, let me tell you what Google gets out of the deal. If the settlement is approved, the search engine gets the right to do the following things:

  • Scan books and inserts that are still covered under copyright law.
  • Develop an electronic books database.
  • Sell subscriptions to the books database to schools, corporations, and other institutions.
  • Sell individual books to consumers.
  • Place advertisements next to pages of books.

And what do the copyright holders get? Not a bad deal, actually: 63 percent of all revenues Google earns from these uses. In order to pay the right entities, a Book Rights Repository will be set up. If you’re really curious about the details, the settlement agreement I linked to above even goes to the level of what constitutes a sale and how much Google can charge for books.

Oh by the way, don’t get too panicky about the advertisement provision. You may see advertising next to book pages online, but Google insists in its FAQ that “Advertising will not be overlaid on pages from a book.”

I expect many authors reading all this are wondering about the Book Rights Registry. Is Google going to administer this and decide who gets how much? Not hardly; this is one case in which Google is truly trying to live up to its “Don’t be evil” motto.

The Book Rights Registry will be a newly created, independent, not-for-profit entity “established for the purposes of locating rightsholders, collecting and maintaining accurate rightsholder information, providing a way for rightsholders to request inclusion in or exclusion from the project, distributing payments earned from online access provided by Google, and representing rightsholders’ interests in connection with similar programs that may be established by other providers,” according to Google’s FAQ. The search engine will not be managing the Book Rights Registry at all; instead, it “will be managed by a board of directors consisting of an equal number of author representatives and publisher representatives.”

I didn’t have space in the previous section to mention one of the best parts of the settlement. It authorizes Google to provide free, full-text, online viewing of millions of out-of-print books at designated computers in US public and university libraries. This opens many tomes to academics, scholars, and plain library patrons who might not have even been aware of a particular book’s existence, let alone where to get it.

Anyway, how does this change the results that Google returns today and in the future? To start with, you can search over the full text of about seven million books through Google Book Search. Here’s a classic example:


My search was on the phrase “It was the best of times,” the opening to A Tale of Two Cities. I was afraid I’d have a Dickens of a time finding it when it wasn’t the first entry on the first page, but all I had to do was scroll down a little; it came up in the fifth position. In addition to the remarkably clear text, I can benefit from a whole range of options offered on the right side.

First of all, if I want to, I can download it. I can view the plain text, which seems to present the entire book in a different, clearer font. Clicking on “About This Book” takes me to a page that reads like a profile of it; it includes key words and phrases, the table of contents, popular passages from the book, reviews, references to the book from web pages and from other books…the list goes on, and it’s so complete that I really recommend you try searching for books through Google yourself.

But wait, there’s more. I can search within the book itself for more phrases. I can buy this book from a number of different online sources. I can even find it in a library. I can read the book online, and write a review.

I can even add it to my library! What does that mean? If you have a Google account, you now have a library to which you can add books. Other people can view the books in your library. They can’t see your name or email address though; they can only see the nickname you choose when you first decide to save a book to your library.

It’s worth noting that books will be treated differently depending upon how the copyright holders want them handled. For instance, when I searched for the classic opening line to Moby Dick — “Call me Ishmael” — and clicked on my choice, I came to a page that was clearly marked “copyrighted material” at the bottom, and in the right pane was a notice that the page was being displayed with permission from the publisher, Kessinger Publishing. Google included a direct link to the publisher – a nice touch. I could still do many of the things I could do with A Tale of Two Cities, but not all. I couldn’t download it, for example, which is not surprising, since as far as I know, it’s still in copyright. But I could add it to my library for reading.

I might do a fuller review of Google Book Search if there’s interest after the settlement goes through. Right now, though, I’d like to talk about how this affects the way Google will handle the digitization part of the project, as well as the way users will view books. Basically, Google’s approach – or, more precisely, the settlement — divides books into three categories: in-copyright and in-print; in-copyright but out-of-print; and out-of-copyright books.

Books that are in-copyright and in-print are still being actively sold by publishers; you can find them at bookstores. The “preview” and “purchase” options available through Google Book Search make them even more accessible. It seems likely that books that are in-copyright and in-print won’t be available for download.

Books that are in-copyright but out-of-print aren’t being actively published or sold; they can usually be found only in libraries or used bookstores. This is where the settlement can really benefit authors. According to Google, “When this agreement is approved, every out-of-print book that we digitize will become available online for preview and purchase, unless its author or publisher chooses to ‘turn off’ that title.” It should “enable authors and publishers to earn money from volumes they might have thought were gone forever from the marketplace.” This is the long tail in action.

As for out-of-copyright books, Google will continue to let Book Search users read, download, and print them.

What are Google’s future plans for Book Search? Arguably, this project is dramatically in line with its mission, which it insists is still “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The company hopes that Book Search “will evolve into a service that ensures that books, along with their authors and publishers, will flourish for many years into the future.”

It’s impossible for a book lover like me to disagree with this sentiment. Certainly, using the service won’t replace buying books in the dead tree edition; many traditional books are still readable decades or centuries later, which is often not true even for a word processing document stored in a 20-year-old format. Here’s hoping this settlement proves to be as big a win all around as it appears at first glance.

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