Google Settles Scanning Suit with Authors, Publishers

Google Settles Scanning Suit with Authors, Publishers

After two years of negotiations, a settlement has been reached in lawsuits between Google and author and publisher groups over the search-engine company’s scanning of copyrighted books. Under the settlement, announced October 28 and subject to approval by a New York federal court, Google would pay $125 million to resolve a class-action lawsuit brought in 2005 by book authors and the Authors Guild, as well as a separate suit filed by five publishers representing the membership of the Association of American Publishers. The payment would go toward creation of a Book Rights Registry where authors and publishers can register works and receive compensation from institutional subscriptions and book sales.

In return, Google will now show up to 20% of a book’s text to users at no charge, rather than just snippets; the entire book will be available online for a fee. Libraries, universities, and other institutions will be offered subscriptions for online access to large collections of those books. Google’s Library Project will continue to scan in-print books from publishers not among the 20,000 members of its Partner Program; they will be searchable, but none of the text will be available. Public and academic libraries in the United States will be offered free, full-text access to Google’s digitized collection at a single designated computer.

Google will keep 37% of revenue from online book sales and advertisements that run next to previews of book pages; the remainder, minus an administrative fee, will go to copyright holders through the Book Rights Registry.

Google partners Stanford University, the University of California, and University of Michigan announced their support for the settlement agreement in a joint news release. “It will now be possible, even easy, for anyone to access these great collections from anywhere in the United States,” said Michigan University Librarian Paul N. Courant. He added that the ability to search and preview millions of books online “is a service that libraries, because of copyright restrictions, could not offer on their own and goes well beyond what would have been possible, even if Google had prevailed in defending the lawsuits.”

The schools’ statement cited such benefits to higher education as a first-ever database of both in-copyright and public domain works on which scholars can conduct advanced research; working copies of partner libraries’ contributed works for searching and web services complementary to Google’s; accommodated services for persons with print disabilities; and digital copies of works digitized by Google provided to the partner libraries for long-term preservation purposes.

Some doubts were heard among the widespread praise for the agreement—among them the concerns of a cofounding member of the Open Content Alliance, which was established several months after Google announced its book-scanning initiative. “On the one hand, one admires all of Google’s inventions,” Rick Prelinger, board president of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that hosts an online digital library of one million public domain books, said in the October 29 New York Times. “But when you start to see a single point of access developing for world culture, by default, it is disturbing.”

“I will tell you, frankly, that I kind of wish this case had gone to litigation. I think Google had a great fair use defense,” agreed Corynne McSherry, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates internet free-speech rights, in the October 29 San Francisco Chronicle. “A ruling from the court would have been good for everyone. It potentially could have fostered other offerings, based on that legal certainty” that would have stemmed from a Google win.

Posted and modified on October 29, 2008; corrected on November 7, 2008. Discuss.