April 19, 2018

Libraries Reserve Early Comment, But Some See Bright Side in Google Book Search Settlement

To paraphrase University of Michigan (UM) librarian Paul Courant, what began as a blueprint for a universal digital library has become a universal digital bookstore—and maybe that’s not all bad. Mostly, however, library community reaction to the Google Book Search settlement, released today, has been muted thus far today as librarians and advocates attempt to digest a sweeping business deal in the guise of a legal settlement to two high-profile lawsuits filed against Google over its library scanning. “We need another few days,” Association of Research Libraries (ARL) associate executive director Prue Adler told the LJ Academic Newswire about the effort to absorb the lengthy settlement agreement.


For all the initial talk of moral outrage from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) over scanning of library books without permission, and fair use from Google, in the end the deal, as expected, came down to business, striking a groundbreaking industry-wide web content agreement. Where the deal leaves book readers—and libraries and their users—however, remains very much in question. In a joint news release, Stanford University, the University of California (UC), and UM, all Google partners, announced their joint support for the “outstanding public benefits made possible through the proposed settlement agreement.”

Although not party to the settlement, the three libraries offered “extensive input… on issues of importance to library and university communities,” according to the release, suggesting libraries did have some kind of a seat at the table. “With other libraries, those of the University of California and the University of Michigan, we have been negotiating for almost two years with Google and the plaintiffs to shape this agreement for the public good,” said Michael A. Keller, Stanford university librarian. Among the important benefits to higher education noted in the release:

  • Free preview and ability to either find the book at a local library or through a consumer purchase
  • Creation of a database of both in-copyright and out-of-copyright (public domain) works on which scholars can conduct research
  • Institutional subscriptions providing to in-copyright, out-of-print books
  • Accommodated services for persons with print disabilities
  • Digital copies of works digitized by Google provided to the partner libraries for “long-term preservation purposes”
  • Free full text access at public libraries around the country (at a single designated terminal)

Ironically, the deal, which LJ first broke news of in early October, was announced just as the Open Content Alliance annual meeting got underway in San Francisco. On first blush, said Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle, the agreement seemed to be “everything we expected, and feared.” Kahle has been a vocal critic of Google and its library partners for the lack of transparency as well as for the restrictions it places on its scans of public domain works.

The road ahead

As with any class action suit, don’t expect the final results to come quickly. The settlement must still be approved by a federal judge—and as the recent Tasini settlement shows that may be no slam dunk. Further, as one attorney told LJ on background, executing the nuts and bolts of the deal—creating the registry, setting up the subscription plan, and especially disbursing Google’s payment to authors and publishers—will provide no shortage of challenges to all parties. “There will be objectors, there always are,” the attorney stated. “This is going to be incredibly complex.” The settlement could even see another lawsuit filed to seeking stop it.

Meanwhile, while praising the broad strokes of the deal, librarians at UC, Stanford, and Michigan added an important caveat that portended even more negotiation to come. “It is important to note that neither the proposed settlement nor the universities’ support of it effectuate their full participation in the new arrangement,” the statement notes. “Each of the universities has a cooperative agreement in place with Google that remains in effect. Each now must negotiate and execute amendments to those agreements that reflect the terms and conditions described in the settlement. Any final decision to continue contributing to Google Book Search will be made after negotiation and finalization of such an amended agreement.”