After once being a hot topic, prompting many in publishing to vocally take sides, the dispute between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers simmered quietly in lawyers’ offices for more than two years. But this week Google’s book scanning effort was back in the news with the announcement of a $125 million settlement. What may have been lost in this news is that Google is suddenly poised to drive a massive change in the publishing marketplace, multiply by many times the number of books available at the fingertips of readers, and supercharge the market for online delivery of books.
The original Google Book Search controversy erupted almost immediately after Google first launched the feature, then called Google Print. To many, it seemed like an almost impossible effort but somehow Google had the will and resources to deliver on an incredible promise: all of the world’s books – and therefore, some would say, all of the world’s knowledge – digitized, searchable, and preserved for future generations. But some publishers, many of them divisions of media conglomerates and made vigilant by the piracy that had ravaged the music industry, were wary of Google’s intentions and feared a frenzy of unfettered book-swapping.
In part, the controversy stemmed from confusion about what Google was up to and the knee-jerk notion that digitized books would quickly be coursing across the internet, freely available to anyone who wanted them. Essentially, the search giant was dividing books into three categories. Google would work with publishers on in-print, copyrighted books via its “Partner Program,” which makes previews of the books available, provides “buy this book” links, and includes a revenue share for the ads displayed next to those books’ pages. Out-of-print, public domain books, meanwhile, were freely scanned and made fully available by Google. But it was the third category, out-of-print books that are still under copyright, that caused the most angst.
This angst was compounded by Google’s methods; the search engine had gone around the copyright holders and brokered deals with universities to scan the contents of libraries containing millions of volumes. Google assured publishers that, by default, only snippets of these books would be displayed and that the snippets were protected by fair use, but this promise – and its legal justification – were not enough to soothe the publishers and the Authors Guild, so they sued. Publishers’ pique, however, seemed to go beyond the issue of fair use and instead seemed to be rooted in a desire to push back against what was viewed as Google’s arrogance and to exercise control, as absolutely as was possible, over their copyrighted works.
This notion of control was a common thread through many of the responses of publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing’s Nigel Newton said “Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.” This was echoed at the Association of American Publishers: “‘If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,’ Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. ‘Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,’ she said.” And HarperCollins and others pushed their own digitizing efforts, resulting in widgets and beefed up publisher websites. These anti-Google voices were offset by a cacophony of authors and publishers who dissented and were open to Google’s experiment, including Richard Nash of Soft Skull and several others.
But now, after after more than two years of negotiating, a resolution has emerged that, if approved by a US district court to resolve still pending lawsuits, could mark a major change in the availability of books.
The big change comes in that nettlesome category: out-of-print, copyrighted books. Here’s how Google describes its proposed plan for those books:
Until now, we’ve only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we’ve scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you’d have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of-print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.
And what’s key is how Google plans to make these books available: “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.” With those two sentences, the number of books available to readers – Google has estimated that 80% of the books in libraries are out of print – will increase substantially. In addition, by making these books available for sale, a new revenue stream will be opened for publishers (the books will also be available via institutional subscriptions offered to libraries and the like). There are no estimates on how big this number might be but it represents new money both for publishers and for writers whose books are out of print. Perhaps dislocated by this, meanwhile, are thousands of booksellers (not to mention Amazon), whose used book businesses are often times the easiest way for a person to get their hands on many out-of-print books. If a reader doesn’t need to own the physical book, Google will be an enticing option, particularly since it seems very likely that books offered through Google Book Search would be cheaper.
The Association of American Publishers FAQ on the deal notes one of the ways the books will be priced: “Google will automatically set and adjust prices through an algorithm designed to maximize revenues for the book. This algorithm will be based on multiple factors.” So, as Google brings its algorithm magic to pricing out-of-print books, it seems sure to impact the pricing across the whole market. In addition, publishers and authors have long bemoaned that they are cut out of the revenue in a used book market that has only grown larger thanks to the internet. It would seem that the Google deal will now give them a way to reach out to at least a slice of those used book buyers.
But perhaps more important than the new revenue for publishers will be the huge increase in access to a large new subset of books, in one stroke bringing back millions of out-of-print books from oblivion. While this may not excite the casual reader, it represents a great expansion of the amount of knowledge that is fully searchable and at our fingertips and it has the potential to be a great boon to scholars.
Over the last decade, the internet has wrecked many old media business models. Despite my frustration at their initial recalcitrance, the publishers were right to protect their business model, and both Google and the publishers should be lauded if this agreement results in the creation of a new one.