Google's tangled quest for a universal online library.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
May 6 2009 4:22 PM

Your Search Returned 12 Million Books

Google's goal of a universal online library would be great for humanity. It can still be great for authors and publishers, too.

Google Books. Click image to expand.

In 2004, Google announced that it would create the largest library in the history of the world. The search company had signed up with major universities around the globe to scan and make searchable every word in every volume they contained. When it was done, we'd be able to search through printed texts in the same way we search the Web. It was a lofty ambition, and it was quickly stopped short by a cold reality—copyright law.

Google maintained that its books search engine was legal under the fair use provisions of copyright law. Under the plan, Google would show Web searchers the full text of all books that were old enough to have passed into the public domain. For books that were still in print, Google would show a few pages only if its copyright holder gave permission. That left one more category: books that were out of print but still covered by copyright law; these are known as "orphan works," because in many cases it's impossible to track down either "parent," the author or the publisher, to obtain permission to scan them. For these books, Google offered a compromise. It would scan and copy orphan works it encountered in libraries, but when they showed up in search results, Google would show only a "snippet"—a few words from the book, the digital equivalent of an entry in a card catalog.

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The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers were not satisfied. They labeled Google's project theft on a massive scale, and in 2005 they sued to stop it. Last year, Google, the authors, and the publishers announced that they'd reached a landmark settlement, which is subject to review by a federal judge in June. But in recent weeks, it has come under intense attack from copyright scholars and consumer advocates, and the Justice Department has reportedly opened an antitrust inquiry into the settlement. Rather than satisfy Google's mission of organizing the world's information, critics say, the deal gives Google and the publishing industry unrivaled power in the new market for digital books. Looking at the settlement, it's hard to disagree.

At least initially, the terms of the deal will look pretty grand for Web searchers. Say you search Google Books for "Winston Churchill." At the moment, you'll come up with lots of books that offer you only snippet view or no preview at all. Under the new settlement, Google would allow American users to preview 20 percent of any title it has scanned. Public libraries and universities would enjoy even broader access; users there would be able to see the entire text of any book in the engine. Google will display ads alongside the books, and it will also offer users the chance to buy a digital copy of books they find. (What format that digital copy would take is still unresolved.) The company will put 63 percent of revenues into a fund called the Book Rights Registry, which would be maintained by the publishing industry. You can think of this as an orphans scholarship fund; authors who suspect that Google may be serving up their out-of-print (but still copyrighted) books could register with the BRR and get a cut of that fund. (The formula by which the money will be distributed to authors has not been released.)

To summarize, then: The plan would give Web searchers far greater access to books, and Google and authors will be able to make money from it. What's the big problem?

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