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A View from Erica Naone

Google May Not Realize Its Vision for Books

A judge nixes the settlement the search giant worked out with the Authors Guild.

  • March 23, 2011

Google seemed poised to deliver the digital version of the Library of Alexandria. For years, the company has been scanning books from libraries, amassing an incredible repository of the world’s printed information. That data was searchable–snippets of text helped identify books related to search terms–and, recently, Google made it into a bookstore.

Behind the scenes of that incredible technological achievement was a laborious legal process, attempting to pin down how copyright applied to Google’s undertaking. The result was a groundbreaking settlement between Google and the Authors Guild. Io9’s Annalee Newitz called it “the twenty-first century’s most important shift in how we deal with copyright in the world of publishing.”

But this week, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin nixed that settlement, sending the parties back to the drawing board and calling the fate of the venture into question. Galleycat collected reactions from many of the major parties here.

Newitz explains the settlement in detail with a lot of background and context, but summarizes it as follows:

Google Books was a much expanded vision from Google Book Search, and with some exceptions it gave the company a retroactive license to digitize any book registered in the United States before 2009, and any book published before 2009 in the UK, Australia, and Canada.

But one aspect of the deal seemed to be a major sticking point, as explained by Locus:

One of the most controversial aspects of the program was that any authors who didn’t opt-out in time automatically agreed to let Google scan their works, and to sell any out-of-print works as e-books. The settlement drew objections from SFWA, the National Writers Union, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Microsoft, Amazon.com, the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, Consumer Watchdog, Open Book Alliance, the Internet Archive, the state of Pennsylvania, many individual authors and literary agents, and others.

Chin hinted that a deal that was set up to be opt-in rather than opt-out might fit the bill. But Publishers Weekly explains why this is much less appealing for Google:

That was not by oversight. An opt-in deal holds significantly less allure for the parties, especially for Google. For one, there would be no orphan works, and thus the library database envisioned by the plan would be significantly less valuable. “The attractiveness of the proposed settlement to Google is that if conferred to them all kinds of benefits that they couldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Gant explains, “benefits that flowed from being an opt-out agreement. If you flip this from an opt-out agreement to an opt-in, all those benefits disappear.” It remains to be seen if the prospect of no settlement at all is enough to make the opt-in agreement palatable.

Chin will hold a conference in New York City on April 25, and it seems likely that Google and the Authors Guild may soon begin work on renegotiating the settlement.

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