Some Future Directions for Google Books

Google received a painful judg­ment from Judge Den­ny Chin on its $125 mil­lion agree­ment with the pub­lish­ing indus­try. Judge Chin felt the agree­ment gave Google a “de fac­tor monop­oly.” Google had been sued by the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers and the Authors Guild in 2005. These groups object­ed to the fact that Google was in the process of scan­ning mil­lions of books for which they were not the copy­right own­er, and then plac­ing small snip­pets on the web for search and retrieval.

Espe­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic were the mil­lions of orphaned books, that is, books that are still under copy­right pro­tec­tion, but for whom no one is sure who the copy­right own­er is, usu­al­ly because of faulty record keep­ing by pub­lish­ers, pub­lish­ers going out of busi­ness, or com­pli­cat­ed by pro­bate con­fu­sion. Cur­rent­ly, these books have lit­tle val­ue, as they are main­ly out-of-print, and only for sale in the resale mar­ket. How­ev­er, Google has been in the process of sell­ing dig­i­tal ver­sions of books that have been long out of print and had some lev­el of pent-up demand. While each par­tic­u­lar book might not be a best sell­er, in the list of mil­lions of titles that require no roy­al­ty to Google, the aver­age num­ber of books that sell would not have to be great for Google to make a prof­it. In fact, it’s clear that $125 mil­lion is clear­ly not enough for own­er­ship of such a great chunk of humane let­ters.

So, where will Google go from here? No one knows. It is even unclear whether their part­ners in the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers and the Authors Guild will con­tin­ue to work with them to try to come to an agree­ment accept­able to the court, or whether, instead, they will sue Google, now that their agree­ment is no longer in place.

How­ev­er, I think there are some inter­est­ing options for Google:

  • Google Books will cer­tain­ly still dis­trib­ute its vast cat­a­log of pub­lic domain books.
  • Google could donate all the orphaned books to a non-prof­it, such as the Inter­net Archive, with and under­stand­ing that Google could make the books avail­able as they come into the pub­lic domain.
  • Google could nego­ti­ate anoth­er, more expen­sive, agree­ment. It’s unclear how this agree­ment could be designed to meet the court’s require­ments for eco­nom­ic fair­ness, as Google would like­ly still be far ahead of any­one else in dig­i­tiz­ing the worlds books.

For geneal­o­gists, Google Books has been a book, pro­vid­ing unlim­it­ed access to a num­ber of pub­lic domain titles, includ­ing law library con­tent, and local and fam­i­ly his­to­ries.

Scott Tur­ow of the Authors Guild pro­vides an idea of the like­ly direc­tion, and the dif­fi­cul­ty of law get­ting in the way of long-term trends:

Regard­less of the out­come of our dis­cus­sions with pub­lish­ers and Google, open­ing up far greater access to out-of-print books through new tech­nolo­gies that cre­ate new mar­kets is an idea whose time has come,” said Mr.Turow. “Read­ers want access to these unavail­able works, and authors need every mar­ket they can get. There has to be a way to make this hap­pen. It’s a top pri­or­i­ty for the Authors Guild.”