December 14, 2017

Google Settles Landmark Lawsuit Over Book Scanning

  • Two lawsuits settled
  • Copyright issue not really resolved
  • Deal solidifies Google’s place in selling digital books

Faced with navigating a major disagreement over copyright law, one fraught with major implications for the web and libraries, the parties involved in two three-year old lawsuits over Google’s library scan plan instead adopted an “audacious” (according to one plaintiff) if expected strategy to settling the suit: they agreed to disagree on the core issue of copyright in the case, and focused on business.

In a “landmark” (according to a joint news release) joint settlement to lawsuits filed against Google by the Authors Guild (AG) and by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), Google today announced that the parties had agreed to expand Google Book Search into what will be the web’s largest online commercial book venture. While the deal could portend significantly increased access to book content online, it also solidifies Google’s place alone at the top of the digital book heap—and gets publishers and authors paid.

If approved by a federal judge, the settlement would end a class-action suit filed September 20, 2005 by the AG and certain authors, and another suit filed October 19, 2005 by five major AAP members. It would transform Google Book Search into a major online bookstore, creating a one-stop experience for users who wishing to search, access, print or buy copies of books. The announcement comes just weeks after LJ reported on October 10 that a settlement was imminent.

Library reaction

Still digesting the 130-plus page settlement, the library community’s reaction to the deal, and its impact on other-library-based digitization efforts, have been mixed. Writing on his blog, University of Michigan librarian Paul Courant, a Google ally, took an intially sober view. “Many, including me, would have been delighted if the outcome of the lawsuit had been a ringing affirmation of the fair use rights that Google had asserted as a defense,” he noted. “But even a win for Google would have left libraries unable to have full use of their digitized collections of in-copyright materials on behalf of their own campuses or the broader public.

Copyright disagreement

On a conference call this morning, the parties said that there remained a strong difference of opinion over the copyright principles at the core of the case. “We had a major disagreement with Google, and we still do,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “We also don’t see eye-to-eye on with publishers on book contract law,” he added, before calling the settlement the “the biggest book deal” in U.S. publishing history. Aiken said two “guideposts” helped lead his organization through a thicket of issues in the suit. “Authors like their books to be read,” he noted, “and like they like a nice royalty check.”

Under the broad strokes of the deal, Google will pay some $125 million to make the suits go away, $45 million of which will be used to resolve claims for those whose books have been digitized—roughly $60 a book to authors. The rest will go to such costs as legal fees and the establishment of  a “Book Rights Registry” to facilitate future transactions.

Individual users accessing books on Google Book Search, meanwhile, will eventually be able to preview significant chunks of in-copyright books online, or pay to see an entire in-copyright book, as well as order a copy or print it on a home printer. Meanwhile, the “snippet”—the short glimpses of in-copyright book content initially offered by Google—will be replaced by a “preview” function, offering up to 20 percent of the book, including entire pages.

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