Google Books Deal Bolsters Dream of Universal Bookstore

Google's settlement with publishers is an important step toward making millions of rare and out-of-print books available online.

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Carlos Osorio / AP

Courtney Mitchel helps a giant desktop machine digest a rare, centuries-old Bible in Ann Arbor, Mich., on March 21, 2008.

Google’s deal to settle a seven-year conflict with five major publishers over the search giant’s book-scanning initiative is a milestone in the publishing industry’s grinding transition from print books to e-books. The pact, struck by Google and the Association of American Publishers (AAP), does not address the underlying question of whether Google violated copyright law by scanning millions of books over the last several years. Both sides, apparently weary of legal wrangling, have agreed to disagree on that point. The deal also doesn’t affect an ongoing lawsuit filed against Google by the Authors Guild, which represents thousands of authors.

Nevertheless, this landmark agreement is an important step toward the ultimate end-game in this conflict: a system in which Google works together with the publishing community to make millions of hard-to-find books accessible to consumers. That’s the bottom-line: Google’s book-scanning project — now known as the Google Library Project — holds out the promise of a giant Internet library and bookstore, but that outcome is only possible if Google and the publishing community work together.

“In the last few years, Google and the publishers have made their peace; this is just the treaty-signing ceremony,” James Grimmelmann, a copyright expert at New York Law School who has closely followed the case, wrote on his blog. “The publishers have embraced the digital transition in books; Google is now a player and partner in that ecosystem, rather than a dangerous disruptive presence.” The five major publishers included in the settlement are McGraw-Hill, John Wiley, Simon & Schuster, Pearson Education and Penguin Group (also owned by Pearson).

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When Google announced its book-scanning project in 2004, the concept captured the imagination of many in the tech world. What if millions of books — including rare and out-of-print books — were made available on the Web? At the time, Google, which had just gone public and was the toast of the tech world, seemed like the only entity with the resources and resolve to undertake such a massive and ambitious project. Google Books was a signature project for company co-founder Larry Page, who made the effort a top priority.

To kick off the initiative, Google announced partnerships with several important academic and cultural libraries including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the New York Public Library, to digitize their collections. This meant a time-consuming effort to scan thousands of print books, page-by-page, using sophisticated robotic cameras, some capable of digitizing 1,000 pages per hour. To date, Google has scanned over 20 million books.

Finally, it seemed, the dream of a universal library — a mythical goal that has existed for two millennia since the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the classical world’s central repository of knowledge — could be within reach, or at least somewhat closer to becoming a reality. (Harvard has since withdrawn from the project in favor of an academic effort called the Digital Public Library of America — but not until after Google had already scanned some 850,000 books from its collection.)

Not so fast, said major publishers and the Authors Guild, which filed a lawsuit in 2005 claiming that the project violated copyright law, and didn’t adequately provide for compensation to rights-holders and authors. Since then, the two sides have waged an epic and closely watched legal battle that’s come to be viewed as a central front in the larger struggle between legacy pre-Internet industries, including publishing, music and movies, and new digital upstarts, led by Google, who aimed to bring those industries into the digital age.

The two sides have tried to settle the dispute before, but failed, including last year, when U.S. federal judge Denny Chin rejected a proposed $125 million settlement, saying it violated the “property rights” of people without their consent, particularly in the case of “orphan works,” out-of-print books whose authors can’t be located to obtain their consent. Google maintained that its project was protected by “fair use,” a legal concept that allows for certain types of reproduction, when used for criticism, journalism, teaching, and academic research. After last year’s deal was rejected, the publishers and authors split, which is why the former were able to strike a new accord with Google, while the latter continue their lawsuit.

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The settlement gives publishers the choice to make their books available to Google for its project. Those who participate will have the option to receive a digital copy for their use, including to sell online. In Google’s model, users can browse up to 20% of books and then purchase digital versions through the Google Play online store, with rights-holders receiving an unspecified cut of the proceeds of the sale. (Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. As a settlement between private parties, the pact is not subject to court approval, according to the AAP and Google.)

“We are pleased that this settlement addresses the issues that led to the litigation,” Tom Allen, President and CEO of the AAP, said in a statement. “It shows that digital services can provide innovative means to discover content while still respecting the rights of copyright-holders.” David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, said: “By putting this litigation with the publishers behind us, we can stay focused on our core mission and work to increase the number of books available to educate, excite, and entertain our users via Google Play.”

Michael J. Boni, a lawyer for the Authors Guild, told the Associated Press that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the potential for a settlement with authors. “We’re delighted that Google and the publishers forged an agreement,” he said. “We see that as a sign of Google’s willingness (to be open) to the concept of settlement. And we hope we can get to the bargaining table as soon as we can.”

Google’s deal with publishers is a welcome step in the right direction, after seven years of litigation. Now, if Google can come to agreement with authors, the dream of a universally accessible digital book database may finally have the chance to become a reality. Consumers will always have to buy books, of course, but the Google Library Project holds out the promise of dramatically increasing the number of books that are available for purchase, particularly rare and out-of-print books. This will be good for Google, publishers, authors, consumers, journalists, scholars, and society at large. If we can increase the amount of knowledge available to all, we all win.

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