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.”