All Your Books Are Belong to Google

After two years of litigious wrangling, on Tuesday Google announced an agreement with the U.S. book industry that will allow the media giant to sell online access to millions of titles–many of them out-of-print or hard-to-find.

For several years now, Google has been laboriously scanning books, making their pages available through the company’s Google Book Search. Two years ago, the Authors’ Guild and representatives of the American Association of Publishers filed class action lawsuits against Google, charging copyright infringement.

The three parties hailed the $125 million settlement–which awaits approval by a federal court in Manhattan–“as a key moment in the evolution of electronic publishing,” reports the Guardian. If the deal is approved, users will be able to search for books via Google, sample the contents, and purchase reading rights. Google will fork over a share of the proceeds to a newly established nonprofit Book Rights Registry (BRR), which will then distribute funds to authors and publishers.

The BRR also would “locate rightsholders, collect and maintain accurate rightsholder information, and provide a way for rightsholders to request inclusion in or exclusion from the project,” according to Google.  

In short, the BRR would operate a whole heck of a lot like ASCAP does today, writes Adam Thierer at Technology Liberation Front. That’s a good thing for writers and publishers, but the architecture of the deal also has Thierer wondering: “Could this be the beginning of a move toward a more comprehensive online collective licensing system for other types of content as everything moves online[?]” 

The magic ingredient to collective licensing schemes, as Thierer and others have pointed out, is a gigantic, trustedmiddle organization–capable of handling all the transactions. (Who else but Google can tap the resources to scan and digitally archive the individual pages of 7 million books?) In the current media-and-publishing landscape, we’re probably to be forgiven if the words trusted and gigantic don’t seem a natural coupling.

Assuming the settlement goes through, however, we could have a glimpse of our digital future. “This will make it substantially easier for authors and publishers to find, distribute and monetize out-of-print books–in effect, creating or enhancing a ‘long tail’ for book publishing,” writes Mathew Ingram, a technology writer for the Globe & Mail, on his personal website. Ingram also points out that libraries stand to benefit–as part of the settlement, Google will provide free online access to millions of books through public libraries and universities.

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