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Google Settles Book-Scanning Lawsuit

Google's quest to assimilate the sum of human knowledge took a major step forward today when it settled two lawsuits filed by authors and book publishers who sought to stop its Book Search Library Project.

The plaintiffs--led by two trade groups, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers--wanted to prevent Google from scanning and indexing copyrighted books, then allowing users to search and read snippets of their contents. They called that an abuse of their members' copyrights; Google called it a non-infringing "fair use" of the material. (See this contemporary Post story, as well as this 2006 column by my then-fellow tech columnist Leslie Walker.)

Under the deal these parties worked out--provided it gets a judge's approval--Google will pay at least $45 million, at $60 a book, to copyright holders whose works were scanned without permission. It will then set up a mechanism under which users can read more extensive excerpts online--up to 20 percent of the book--or buy the entire title.

The proceeds of these sales, and of any ads displayed next to book search results, will go to authors, minus a 37 percent cut that Google will keep. To free writers from having to invoice Google every quarter, a new Book Rights Registry, modeled after songwriters' organizations like ASCAP and BMI, will collect these payments and distribute them appropriately.

With out-of-print, copyrighted works, authors and publishers will have to opt out of this arrangement; for in-print titles, they'll have to opt into it. In other words, you should initially expect to see far more out-of-print than in-print titles available in their entirety, as publishers and authors decide if they want to take this step for titles they still sell.

Copyright holders can also ask that their works be removed from Google's index--though Google already provides them this option.

Public-domain books will remain fully accessible at no charge. Google will also allow every public library building in the United States to provide free access to any book it's scanned--in or out of print, copyrighted or not--on a single computer.

There's more about this deal at the Web sites of all the parties involved:

* Google provides a reasonably simple explanation of how things will change at its Books Project site.

* At the Authors Guild site, president Roy Blount Jr. outlines what he sees as the deal's advantages.

* The Association of American Publishers provides a frequently-asked-questions document with further details.

* If you've got some time and a fresh pot of coffee, you can read the full 323-page settlement proposal (PDF).

Stories about copyright-policy squabbles are supposed to include winners and losers--so who won and who lost here? I'd have to say the winner's Google. The publishers' and authors' groups had each sought to limit Google's book scanning to titles explicitly authorized by copyright holders--but this settlement assumes the opposite. It even goes so far as to make online availability the default setting for out-of-print works, which solves the problem of "orphan works" vanishing from the market because their authors can't be found to grant permission.

Since I oppose the further expansion of copyright in general, I think this is a good outcome, well worth Google spending the equivalent of loose change found under its sofa cushions. I don't expect all of you to agree, and so the comments await your input.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 28, 2008; 12:34 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
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This seems like one of those earth-shatteringly obvious-but-great ideas; equal access to all books, for all people...

....but then again, from a certain anarcho-libertarian point of view, it shows the awful (in the sense of inspiring awe (and maybe fear)) power of Google. It just created an ASCAP for text. And once you've got a micro-billing system, the next step is tracking every eyeball, just as ASCAP wants to track every ear.

(Look at me, I'm an internet crank!)

[More crankery: Rob, does anyone know if the Big G is looking at property records? Once all the intellectual property is sliced, diced, tracked, marketed, and payment-streamed, they need to go after real property information. I'd trust Google over the county courthouse records.... or would I?]

Posted by: annoyed5 | October 28, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Interesting idea - if Google did move into cataloging real property records, does that mean we could dispense with title search, title insurance and other related junk fees when buying/selling real estate?

Posted by: dfl1 | October 28, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Frankly I applaud the authors and publishers for negotiating a reasonable solution to the problem posed by new technology.

Contrast this with the rabid, maniacal greed displayed by the music industry, as illustrated by their practice of suing customers for downloading music, and paying for legislation to shut down web radio stations.

Posted by: JonathanTappan | October 28, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Treating works that are out of print differently for copyright purposes is a tremendous idea and one that is overdue. No one benefits when a work is kept from the public.

Posted by: washpost4 | October 28, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse


But there are people who would worry that, by creating an ASCAP For Text, the gov't & industry are colluding to create a mechanism whereby Text rightsholders can become the next "rabid, maniacal" greedsters. I appreciate your cynicism but you could be letting Text rightsholders off too easy when you claim they're gracious and sensible compared to the RIAA.

The RIAA wasn't a villian for its first 50 years (or whatever), was it? (I really don't know.) Only when technology advanced to the point where (i) personal piracy became infinitely easy (dubbing cassettes was always a pain; copy-paste is so easy), and (ii) Audio rightsholders could *see* the sudden escalation of small-scale piracy, IP address by IP address, did Audio rightsholders go off the deep end.

Creating an ASCAP For Text means there's suddenly a bunch of jerks-in-suits, well-funded by Publisher's Row, to come after folks innocently (or not) trading text files of books they claim they can't afford.

Not defending anyone or slagging anyone, just pointing out some things that occured to me.


Posted by: annoyed5 | October 28, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Loved the statement "Google's quest to assimilate the sum of human knowledge"

The Onion has a similar perspective.

(don't worry, it's just an Onion link, it won't hurt your computers)

Posted by: SSMD1 | October 29, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Loved the statement "Google's quest to assimilate the sum of human knowledge"

The Onion has a similar perspective:

"Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index" (August 31, 2005)

Posted by: SSMD1 | October 29, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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