I just got an email from Google PR, saying the company has settled its long-running legal battle with publishers and authors over its ambitious book-scanning project, a settlement that was rumoured to be in the works for the past month or so. The project has been under a cloud since 2005, when the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild filed two class-action lawsuits alleging that scanning books without permission amounted to large-scale copyright infringement. The Web company said it would remove books from its index on request, but authors and publishers said this reverse-onus approach was unfair.
As part of the settlement, Google is paying $125-million to settle the legal claims, pay legal costs for the two groups, and — more importantly — will set up a new entity called the Book Rights Registry, which will be responsible for distributing payments that come from online access to books provided through Google (and through any similar programs created by other providers). The registry will also be responsible for locating rightsholders for old and out-of-print books, collecting and maintaining accurate info, and for providing a way for rightsholders to “request inclusion in or exclusion from the project.” In effect, Google is setting up a body that does what ASCAP and similar groups do for musicians.
This settlement is a huge step forward for online and electronic access to books. As Google has repeatedly argued, 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. It will also make it easier for people to purchase electronic books, and for libraries to provide electronic access to books in their collections for readers and researchers alike (as part of the settlement, Google will provide free access to millions of scanned books through public libraries and universities). There are some more details about how Google Book Search will change on a micro-site the company has set up.
Mike Masnick at Techdirt is disappointed in the settlement. He makes a fairly persuasive argument that instead of caving in to author and publisher groups, Google should have fought to protect its right to make limited (and arguably fair) use of printed works for its project. Meanwhile, copyright expert Larry Lessig has posted his thoughts on the settlement.