Posted by: Rob Hof on October 28, 2008
UPDATED with more detail throughout…
After three years of wrangling, Google has settled two lawsuits from publishers and authors that claimed its book search program violated their copyrights. Under the agreement, assuming it’s approved by a New York District Court, Google will pay $125 million to settle the suit, which pitted Google’s claim that it had a right to digitize books, present excerpts, and share digital copies with libraries against authors’ and publishers’ claims that those activities violated their copyrights. (Disclosure: One of the five members of the Association of American Publishers that sued Google was McGraw-Hill, owner of BusinessWeek.)
Google will be able to continue scanning millions of books that are in copyright but out of print. The deal doesn’t cover books currently in print; Google does scan those but doesn’t allow views of more than snippets unless publishers have agreed to that. Google, which has scanned 7 million books already and anticipates there are 20 million or more additional books it could scan, will be able to show not only snippets, but full pages. There’s more detail on this Google blog post.
In return, Google will allow people to buy the books, offer subscriptions to institutions such as universities and libraries, which will allow people to print an unlimited number of pages from a book for a fee, and give authors and publishers control over who gets access to their works and how. Google will take 37% of the revenue from sales and subscriptions, with authors and publishers sharing the rest after administrative costs. Google also will share the same proportion of revenue from advertising placed on Google Book Search results pages, and from sales of digital books or portions of them.
The $125 million will go toward resolving claims by authors and publishers, paying for legal fees, and setting up a Book Rights Registry that will locate rights holders and distribute payments to them, maintain a database of books, and determine which publishers and authors want to allow their works online or not.
Clearly, Google must have felt it was not worth continuing to fight the lawsuit, which exposed what appeared to be gray areas of copyright law in the digital age. Indeed, the settlement doesn’t resolve whether copyright law allows Google to scan books without authorization. “We had a major disagreement with Google over copyright law and we probably always will,” Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said on a conference call.
The settlement, which is effective only in the U.S.—people elsewhere will only be able to view snippets of book text as they can now—is in some ways a win for publishers and authors. They will get new revenue streams for books that in most cases didn’t have a market anyway because they were out of print. However, Google also ended up paying what was relative chicken feed for the right to continue providing access to these books, and it will get what seems like a sizable chunk of revenues from subscriptions and ad revenues. The only question is why it took well over two years for the two sides to come to an agreement that appears to work well for both of them, as well as for readers.
Update: I asked Google and representatives of the publishers and authors that very question in a followup call. Their answer: Four different parties with different agendas—authors, publishers, libraries, and Google—all had to agree, and that involved a tremendous amount of detail, as you can see in the agreement here.
As a book lover, what I find the coolest thing about the deal is that eventually, I’ll be able to visit most any library and, using at least one terminal that will be set up at each library, view digital versions of these books for free (though I’ll have to pay to print out pages). It’s nice that all the sides managed to agree on something that is demonstrably a good thing for all of us.