Reading between the lines of Google books settlement

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NET RESULTS: The deal that effectively gave Google the sole rights over millions of books has far-reaching implications

I KEEP trying to get my head around the implications of the Google books settlement in the US and how such a settlement could have happened in the first place, effectively giving a single company the sole rights over millions of books.

It seems that other people have also been trying to get their heads around it and the Google Book Search service. In some cases they are finding it a bit disquieting, because some of these people are in the US department of justice and, as of late last month, are considering the possible anti-trust implications.

In addition, a cluster of library groups in the US have asked a federal judge to review the settlement to ensure it does not award monopoly control over digital versions of books to a single entity, ie Google (but note: for whatever reason, they are not complaining about the general tenor of the settlement).

The $125 million (€93.9 million) settlement was the result of a class-action copyright violation suit against Google in the US, which was filed by authors and publishers when the search giant began scanning the content of millions of books – not just those off copyright but also those under copyright. The settlement grants Google the ability to scan all the books it wants, and then use that content in various ways. It might sell entire books via instant printing services; it might sell chunks of material to be used in class reading packs for universities and colleges (a common form of assigned reading in US college courses); it might make material available with targeted advertising running alongside it.

Authors can opt out of the deal, in which case Google is supposed to remove a book from its registry of available books. For copyright holders who opt in to the deal, Google will share revenue with them when others buy access to the material. (Incidentally, a judge just postponed the deadline for authors to stake their copyright claim, originally this month.)

Given how many writers internationally are published through US publishers, the settlement has implications not just for American writers living in the US.

When I attended a copyright event in Dublin earlier this year, on the topic of the settlement and its implications for Irish writers, attendees looked shell-shocked. From their questions to the presenters, they were clearly trying to grapple with how it could be possible that an internet company now had controlling rights of such scope on everything they have had published in the US, whether in or out of print.

Those present concurred that the smallish turnout at the seminar was a reflection of how unaware most writers are about the deal and its implications. Many Irish writers probably remain ignorant that their work has ended up in the constantly expanding Google stable.

As UCD law professor Bob Clark made clear at the seminar, this is not going to be a purely US-based issue for writers. Almost certainly Google will seek similar deals on book content with publishers around the world.

Publishers and library organisations seem to have just rolled over and said “uncle”. The only aspect of the deal that seems to bother them (or at least the library folks) is the alarming situation with so-called “orphan works” – works for which the author or copyright holder cannot be found. The settlement would give the sole control for such works, which number in the millions, to Google. So you would violate Google’s ownership of an out-of-print, off-copyright work by scanning it yourself and putting it online (the Internet Archive has been doing this as a free community effort for years) or printing it out.

You do have to hand it to Google – the settlement is a brilliant result. Imagine just ignoring complex ownership and copyright issues, then having the inevitable lawsuit award you this vast and grand prize.

To consider how bizarre this is, consider it in terms of music. Imagine if Apple had just started ripping CDs and converting them without permission into downloads for sale through iTunes. And imagine if a lawsuit brought by musicians and record companies resulted in Apple being given digital rights to all that music and to collecting and distributing revenue for it.

I am no great fan of how the music industry has managed much of its engagement with the internet, but to its credit I don’t think it would have come to such a spineless settlement.

Much good can come from making out-of-print works available online and from making books easily searchable and accessible on the web. Google should play a significant role in such an endeavour. But it should not have the dominant role in publishing that it has quite outrageously acquired through this settlement.

klillington@irishtimes.com

Blog and podcasts: www.techno-culture.com

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