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It’s a sad day when a mega-company like Google has to resort to stealing in order to get people reading. I commend them.

Last week, after three years of litigation, Google announced a $125 million settlement to two class-action copyright infringement lawsuits filed against them in 2005, the first by the Authors Guild, and the second by five major publishing companies representing the American Association of Publishers (AAP). Plaintiffs claim America’s favorite search engine published copyrighted work online without obtaining the rights (see Google Book Search). Since it published only snippets of these works, Google claims its actions were in line with copyright infringement laws, but this proved to be a weak defense.

About Google Book Search

Launched in 2004, and with the eventual cooperation of over 28 libraries and 20,000 publishers, today Google Book Search publishes digitized snippets and bibliographic information for copyrighted works, previews of works included in their Partner Program, and downloadable full-text versions of works that have fallen out of copyright. Full-text searching of over 7 million books is available with links to purchase (or borrow) online.

The $125mil settlement at-a-glance

In the end, Google was able to compromise with the publishing industry. The result is an agreement currently under review by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. If approved, the agreement would:

  • Give Google the right to publish out-of-print book, in-copyright books for preview and purchase in the U.S.

  • Make it possible for users to preview, purchase, and in some cases, read, full-text versions of copyrighted works online

  • Virtually expand the holdings of U.S. colleges, universities, and other organizations who subscribe to Google’s library
  • Provide free access from designated computers in U.S. libraries to full-text versions of millions of out-of-print books

  • Compensate authors and publishers for online access to their works and allow them to opt-out of the project at-will though the creation of a not-for-profit Book Rights Registry, paid for by Google as part of their $125mil settlement

In many ways, this is huge boon for the publishing industry. With Google manning the ship, authors and publishers of out-of-print but still in-copyright works would be able to share their work with more people, and take a cut of the profits. Likewise, everyone else would be able to purchase online access to full-text versions of millions of books and save them in their Google account, creating a personal digital library (which could easily cut into library use and brick-and-mortar book store sales, but that is a topic for another day).

The downside

While some publishers are happy with the settlement and feel it is a good business model for hard-to-find books, many aren’t buying it. Since the settlement was announced, a barrage of complaints have peppered the Internet claiming what started as a good thing turned sour. Moreover, after reading the settlement, Harvard University Library (one of Google’s original partners in the project) backed out of the new agreement, citing limitations on access to copyrighted works as the reason. The issue at hand? Cost. How much will Google charge? Is it fair? And who does it hurt?

You be the judge. Check out the full settlement text here.


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