After three years of wrangling, Google is pushing closer to a digitized future for books. Even as the U.S. Justice Department continues to review a newly released, modified version of a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers, Google’s plans still contain within them the blueprint for a seismic shift in how we consume and interact with books.
By way of backstory, the settlement explains, “Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Books.” Beginning with that lawsuit, there have been several roadblocks on the way to a final settlement. Some have been cleared, but as the Wall Street Journal points out, “the issue of whether it is fair for the settlement to let Google distribute books whose legal rights owners haven’t been identified—known as orphan works—is still drawing criticism.”
Meanwhile, in the newest version of the settlement, the central elements of Google’s digitization plan are mostly unchanged from a year ago when the settlement was initially announced.
We outlined a year ago what is most likely to matter to readers, a massive expansion in the access to books still under copyright, but out-of-print, including the so-called orphan works. Google’s plan paves the way for a huge expansion in the access to this massive class of books — 80% of the books in libraries, according to Google.
More important, however, is how these books will be made available. As Google has outlined in its breakdown of the new agreement, “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.” This means that millions of books that were once available only in library stacks or through used book dealers or, more likely, that were essentially invisible to all but the most motivated buyers and researchers, will suddenly be as ubiquitous and easily accessible as Google itself.
It is hard to overstate how big this change could be. You might liken it to the creation of the internet itself, when a critical mass of interconnections gave rise to the sharing and spread of information on a massive scale. Even as the internet has changed how we think about the accessibility of knowledge and data, a massive, “dark” cache of human knowledge has remained largely untouched, many millions of physical volumes whose copyright status doomed them to the analog world. With a finalized settlement, these volumes will become plugged into the internet as we know it, available for purchase, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to pay.
The ripple effects of this development may be hard to predict, but it seems likely to bring further into the mainstream the notion of buying a digitized, format-agnostic book. The impact of this will be amplified by the recent news that Google will not be the only seller of the books it has scanned. As a Publishers Marketplace overview of the newest version of the settlement points out, “any book retailer — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, or other retailers — will be able to sell consumers online access to the out-of-print books covered by the settlement.” In this way, the settlement heralds a whole new category of books being sold by book retailers.
Meanwhile, the settlement has been scaled back in one significant way from a year ago. It will only apply to books published or copyrighted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada. The legal intricacies of including books from other countries apparently proved too challenging to overcome.
But ultimately, at least for the English-speaking world, this reining in of Google’s effort will hardly limit its potential consequences.