Rare Book Monthly
Articles - November - 2008 Issue
Major Settlement Reached on Google Book Copyright Suit
By Michael Stillman
A groundbreaking settlement was announced October 28 concerning the unauthorized digitization and viewing of copyrighted books by search giant Google. It promises a level of access to the content of out-of-print (and some in-print) books virtually unfathomable just a few years ago. What it means for physical, tangible books remains to be seen. It's hard to even guess.
Four years ago, Google began its massive digitization program. Securing access to some of the greatest university and public libraries, it began scanning copies of millions of old books and making their content accessible online. Many, if not most, were long outside of copyright protection, which resulted in no controversy. However, Google did not stop there. While books published before 1923 are no longer protected by their copyrights, many of those published later are still under protection. Others are not. It depends on whether copyrights were renewed years ago. Rather than attempting the daunting task of determining which books were still protected and which not, and the even more daunting task of locating the authors, or heirs of long dead authors, to ask permission, Google simply scanned the books. It was left to the authors or their heirs to object.
Few authors objected, but the Authors Guild, on their behalf, did. So did five publisher members of the Association of American Publishers. They objected to Google's use of their works without permission or compensation, with the onus being placed on writers or their heirs to detect Google's online violation of their rights and then demand redress. Certainly, their objections were reasonable and fair. An author is entitled to be compensated for his work. However, were the writers to prevail, vast amounts of knowledge, much under copyright but of no financial benefit to the writers as it was long out of print, would effectively be lost. It was a real conundrum of competing worthwhile interests.
The settlement between Google and the Authors Guild and AAP resolves this vexing problem in a way suitable to all parties. However, the greatest winner here is the third party that was never a participant in this suit - the people. All of this information within these copyrighted but out of print books now becomes available to you and I and everyone else, and through the convenience of a Google search. This is a win-win-win proposition.
The settlement provides for Google to make an upfront payment of $125 million to the various parties. $45 million would be used to pay copyright holders for past use. That is estimated to come to around $60 per book, not a huge payment, but about $60 more than these copyright holders would likely have earned on these books without Google. Next, a Book Rights Registry would be formed. This would be similar to the organizations which monitor the use of recorded music to provide royalties to musicians. Google would sell access to its Book Search database to various institutions and private individuals. Copyrighted books would only be partially visible on Google, with full access gained only by payment. The copyright holders would receive royalties for each access. Charges would also be made for printing out copies of copyrighted books, again with royalty payments being made to the holders. A total of 63% of the payments from each use would go to the copyright holders, with Google receiving the remaining 37%. It is important to note that without Google, the copyright holders of out-of-print books have virtually no hope of ever earning any additional revenue. This is all plus business.