Google redux

Posted by on Jan 10, 2010 in Brian's Blog | 2 comments

The Google Books Settlement, which seeks to create a vast digital library of mostly out-of-print books, has been much talked about in recent days. A group of 250 Canadian writers is urging the federal government, writers, publishers, and other copyright holders to tell Google to scrap the deal. Three American writers’ organizations have sent an open letter to Congress objecting to the settlement, first reached in October 2008 between Google, the American Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers. An amended version of that original settlement goes to a New York court fairness hearing on February 18, 2010.

Here’s what I think about the amended settlement. It stems from a class-action lawsuit launched against Google in 2005 after Google had struck deals with major American university libraries to scan and copy millions of books in their collections. Some of those books were Canadian. Some of them could have been mine. Far as I can tell, however, my books have been excluded from the scanning process.

Many writers were outraged when they discovered that Google had secretly scanned more than seven million books, thus perpetrating what author Nick Taylor called “a plain and brazen violation of copyright law.” Google said it was doing nothing wrong, claiming its online display of “snippets” from the digitized books represented a “fair use” of the material. The Guild begged to differ and the lawsuit was filed.

The Authors Guild was the only writers’ organization to challenge Google in court. It is the largest such group in the United States, representing more than 8,000 published authors. Its counterpart in this country is The Writers’ Union of Canada, which has close to 1,900 members. Other American writers’ groups sat and watched while the Authors Guild took on the behemoth.

After eight months of negotiations, the Guild, the publishers who had joined the lawsuit, and Google decided that the legal proceedings were going nowhere. The plaintiffs offered a settlement proposal to Google. As summarized by author Roy Blount Jr., it said, in effect: While we don’t approve of your unauthorized scanning of our books, if you’re willing to cut authors in for their fair share, then it would be our pleasure to work with you. Two and one-half years later, they announced a $125 million final agreement. About one-third of that money would go to authors and publishers whose books had been scanned without permission. An amended version of the 323-page agreement—made necessary because the US Department of Justice and others criticized the original document—is now going to the New York court for approval.

I still have problems with parts of the amended settlement. For example, I don’t like the fact that it will allow American libraries to provide free public online access to digitized books without any compensation to authors except for page printouts. That’s the same as allowing radio stations to play copyright music recordings without paying royalties to the songwriters. Nor do I like the fact that it puts the onus on foreign authors, including Canadians, to either list their out-of-print books in a proposed new Google tracking registry or lose control of their works.

But by and large I think the Authors Guild has negotiated a fair deal on behalf of its 8,000 members and—by extension—all other authors in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia whose works were digitized without permission. The settlement offers a small amount of money for now and the prospect of more in the future, when authors will receive a percentage of whatever Google can get from selling institutional subscriptions to online book collections, and from selling online access to individual consumers.

Google still admits no wrong. The settlement’s critics cry copyright infringement and Google responds with a defence of fair use. Google says that regardless of whether or not the settlement is approved by the court, it will continue to digitize books in the future, and continue to sell access to its database. Call it arrogance, call it hubris, call it what you will, but who will throw down the gauntlet? So far, only the Authors Guild has dared to do so, and it called a truce after weighing the potential benefits against the possible risks, expenses, and delays of continued litigation.

I can live with the deal, for now. The U.S. justice department and the Federal Trade Commission will continue to monitor its anti-trust and consumer-protection implications. The court will decide if it serves the interest of all parties, including the reading public. If I like what the court decides, I will accept whatever small compensation Google wants to give me for selling future online access to my books. If not, I will politely tell Google that I want to give my business to someone else. So there.

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  1. I totally agree and I am staying in. Thank you, Brian. You saved me having to writing another blog post on this subject.

  2. Brian, that's like saying you are OK with the thief who stole your car, copied himself a set of keys, and is now driving it as a taxi, paying you a fraction of the revenue he earns from it, becuase you have no other choice.The fact that Google is a massive corporation is no reason to settle for a bad deal, no matter what they say – in fact, especially since they blatantly say they are going to continue their illegal activity. If France and China can successfully sue Google and force them to stop and start from the beginning with an offer to negotiate, then so can Canada.

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