Decoding the Google Digital Book Settlement

Decoding the Google Digital Book Settlement
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About Google Digital Books

Google, in keeping with its goal of organizing the all the information contained in the world and making it accessible to everyone everywhere, set

out on an ambitious project to digitize all the world’s books. Google’s controversial objective of collecting, cataloging and presenting all the books in the world had its routes almost as early as the beginning of Google itself.

A history of Google Books furnished by the Internet giant takes users from 1996 until 2007. The Google Book Search effort began at Stanford, mushroomed into the Google search engine and then began a massive effort toward the creation of a universal library. Google got interested in some of the famous early attempts to digitize books in 2002 and soon learned that technology needed to change if libraries were to be scanned in time periods spanning less than a millennium.

The company pioneered techniques for scanning books quickly and non-destructively and spent much of the first decade of the 21st century making deals to scan libraries and their millions of books into a format that could be easily searched and read online.

Google’s project began to slow as its tentacles reached for more recent volumes that had copyright concerns with publishers and authors who were not prepared to surrender their works to either Google or the publish domain. Further stagnating the efforts was the emergence new consortiums such as the Open Book Alliance and the Open Content Alliance (OCA) that sought to make texts publicly available, but with a different approach.

OCA waited for permission from copyright holders. It sought to be more respectful of intellectual property by creating an “opt in” process that was noticeably different from the Google Books program that included everything without getting permission first. Google would, however, allow copyright holders to “opt out” if they objected to their works being included in the Google digital books project.

Eventually, legal action was brought against Google by authors and publishers that eventually led to the famous 2009 Google digital book settlement that allowed Google to move forward with its project while splitting revenues from sales with intellectual property owners.

That all changed in March of 2011 when a federal judge threw out the agreement, sending Google back to the drawing board.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Enrique Dans

About the Ruling

The availability of books in digital format apparently took a back seat to a possibly higher priority of controlling Google when the deal came up for approval by the court. Federal Judge Denny Chin through out the Google digital book settlement, saying that the agreement between Google and the publishers and authors included in the deal was too broad and would give Google an unfair competitive advantage in the realm of digital books.

According to a Boston Herald report on the case, Google has in the neighborhood of 15 million books that it cannot make available to the public unless the deal can be reworked in a way that meets the judge’s approval. Google opponents lauded the decision, however, seeing that a restrained Google will by default result in a level playing field between competing alternatives. The parties to the deal seemed somewhat more despondent, however.

The Author’s Guild and other entities that were party to the original suit against Google and to the pending agreement expressed hope that a new arrangement could be made that would alleviate the present legal concerns. Google likewise has expressed hope that modifications can be made to the deal, although with a new legal agenda in the works by opponents that could clamp down on printed works in ways similar to the way the government dropped the hammer on the distribution of movies and songs, there seems to be an air of hopelessness among Google and its supporters.


When issuing his ruling, Judge Chin was kind enough to suggest some guidelines for re-working the deal between Google and its former foes. His primary suggestion seemed to be changing the Google Library to an “opt-in” system similar to the OCA’s approach. That move, however, would likely gum up the works at Google holding up progress while waiting to hear back from various authors and publishers.


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