Google Wins (I mean settles) Google Book Search Copyright Suits

by Lee Gesmer on October 29, 2008

Google said Tuesday that it has agreed to pay $125 million to settle the copyright litigation brought by book authors and publishers over Google’s project to digitize and show snippets of in-copyright books without the explicit permission of copyright owners. (See 1 2 3 for more on Google Book Search).

$125 million? Peanuts to Google. Less than peanuts. We don’t know all the terms and possible restrictions yet, but it sounds like this is a huge win for Google, which is now free to continue its project of digitizing the world’s books (or at least those under the control of the settling parties) without the threat of injunction.

Google press release here.

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[Update (10/29/08)]: Google explains here how it expects this settlement to affect Google Book Search. Some excerpts from that page are (emphasis added) :

Once approved, this agreement will allow us and our publishing industry partners to greatly expand the number of books that you can find, preview and buy through Google. …

Once this agreement has been approved, you’ll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future. …

Because this agreement resolves a United States lawsuit, it directly affects only those users who access Book Search in the U.S.; anywhere else, the Book Search experience won’t change. Going forward, we hope to work with international industry groups and individual rightsholders to expand the benefits of this agreement to users around the world.

Well, wake up Amazon! Perhaps Google will be able to sell electronic rights to these works through Amazon and the Kindle, in which case the Kindle’s library will soar from fewer than 200,000 to many millions.

The non-U.S. implications of this settlement are unclear in light of this comment –

First, if Google’s “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” as it states on that page, this settlement allows it to succeed with only about 5% of the world’s population if it is limited to the U.S. But, if trying to determine whether works created under U.S. law are under copyright, and if so identify their owners was difficult, the task of making these determinations for non-U.S. works seems almost insurmountable.

Second, Google is in fact digitizing many non-U.S. books. How can these books be included in this settlement (presumably they are subject to non-U.S. copyright laws and controlled by non-U.S. publishers)? Will they be excluded from the Book Search program, even to U.S. users of Google?

Returning to the U.S., and the announced settlement, what’s stopping some of the class members from opting out of the settlement? Some authors or publishers may not be happy with a loss of this magnitude this settlement. Google may not be done with even the U.S. legal issues just yet.

There are many questions in the wake of this announced settlement. Given the magnitude of this undertaking it may take many years, even decades, for all of the legal issues associated with Book Search to be resolved.

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