Blown To Bits

Google Books Lawsuit Settled

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A huge sword that has been hanging over Google Books was lifted today, when the company came to terms with representatives of U.S. authors and publishers. Those groups had claimed that by scanning in copyrighted works and making them available in limited form, Google was infringing their copyrights. Google here explains how book search will work in the future. In essence, the company will add an option so you can buy access to the full, scanned version of a copyrighted work. You won’t be able to download it, but you’ll be able to access it any time you log into your Google account. Libraries will be able to buy institutional subscriptions. An independent rights registry will be created to figure out where the money should go, in the (very large) case of copyrighted works for which the copyright holder is unknown (orphaned works).

Many, many details will determine whether this is a good deal for society or not. A lot depends on the price points, where the kitty of undistributed money goes, and so on. Any time an important issue like this is settled out of court, it’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, most people will continue to get the service they’ve gotten used to and the courts have not gotten in the way. On the other hand, the underlying legal questions have not been settled, and could come back in another form.

Update: The settlement involves payments by Google of at least $80 million up front. The full details are available here, including how the user payments will be divided among the parties going forward. Again, the bottom line is that Google never admitted to doing anything wrong and the publishers never agreed that what Google was doing was within “fair use,” so the most important copyright questions may come back to bite us another day.

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