Google Gets Generous, Settles Suit

Kevin Canfield
From the January/February 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

It took three years, but the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the Authors Guild, and Google finally resolved a highly publicized dispute about copyright and intellectual property law by agreeing on a $125 million out-of-court settlement that would seem to benefit all parties involved.

Under the terms of the recent settlement, Google agreed to get permission from whoever holds the rights to a book before digitizing it.

The agreement, which was announced late last October but still needs the final approval of a federal judge, is a creative solution to a complicated standoff that began in September 2005, when the Authors Guild sued the world's most popular Internet search engine over its plans to digitally copy and distribute copyrighted works without permission of the copyright owners. The AAP, representing Simon & Schuster, Penguin USA, John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson Education, filed a similar class-action lawsuit a month later. Both suits effectively argued that the Print Library Project—Google's effort, launched a year earlier, to scan millions of books from three university libraries, an endeavor that later grew to include Google Book Search, a nonacademic program currently offering around seven million titles for public preview—is a violation of publishers' and writers' copyright protections. As AAP president Patricia Schroeder said at the time, "Google is basically trying to rewrite the copyright laws that have been on the books forever."

Google countered that its digitization of books constituted "fair use" because the copyright had expired on many of the texts, which were therefore in the public domain, and because only a portion of any text—even if it is still under copyright—can be viewed at one time. "The concerns were that there were copyrighted works that were being scanned and put on the Web in the form of snippets," says Authors Guild president Roy Blount Jr. "Google said it was only going to show snippets, but there was no definition of what a snippet is. One man's snippet is another man's big old chunk."

Under the terms of the recent settlement, Google agreed to get permission from whoever holds the rights to a book before digitizing it. In order to do this, Google will spend more than thirty-four million dollars to fund the creation of an independent nonprofit entity, the Book Rights Registry, that will serve to locate copyright owners, obtain permissions, and distribute payments earned through online access provided by Google.

Google will continue to offer previews of a limited number of pages of copyrighted works, but only works whose rights holders have agreed to participate in the program. Readers will have the ability to view the complete work online for a fee; the rights holder may set the price or allow the price to be set according to a Google algorithm. Google will also launch an institutional subscription program open to academic, corporate, and government organizations, which will offer full access to copyrighted out-of-print books. (Public libraries will be offered subscriptions for free.) In addition, the settlement allows Google to implement new services such as print-on-demand and individual subscriptions.

At least forty-five million dollars of the settlement money will be allocated to authors and publishers whose copyrighted texts have been scanned without permission. "If your book was scanned and you own all the rights, you'll get a small share of this, at least sixty dollars, depending on how many rights holders file claims," wrote Blount in a message to Authors Guild members.

Google did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but in a press release distributed by the Authors Guild, Google cofounder Sergey Brin is quoted as saying, "While this agreement is a real win-win for all of us, the real victors are all the readers. The tremendous wealth of knowledge that lies within the books of the world will now be at their fingertips."

"The great thing, of course, is that these books will be preserved," Blount says. "Presumably Google is a lot more lasting than paper and ink."

Kevin Canfield is a freelance writer in New York City.

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