Battle for "Future Library of Libraries"

Battle for "Future Library of Libraries"

Just read about Sony siding with Google in “Library of Future” settlement.

In the battle to win readers for the books of the future, Sony has sided with Google over a controversial, proposed copyright lawsuit settlement that lets Google build out the library and bookstore of the future.

That pits Sony and Google against Yahoo, Microsoft and Amazon…

If you haven’t followed the origins of this battle from the inception of Google Book Search, read on.

If you are not familiar with Google Book Search, it is just like a Google web search, but searches scanned content from all the books that Google can get their hands on or more specifically all the books that they are allowed to get their hands on, because lets face it, Google’s got the resources and the wherewithal to get their hands on every book there is if no one had any objections to their use.  If the book is out of copyright or if it is published by one of the publishers they have signed up with, you will be able to see a preview of the book. If the books is in the public domain, you will be able to download the entire book in a PDF format. If you are interested in purchasing the book, you will be presented with information about where you can buy that book.

What is the problem you say? So far, so good, but where do these books come from? The answer to this is the origin for the current fight over it. Google collects these books from two programs – their Library Project and Partner Program.

Their Library project is where Google partners with different public libraries and University libraries to scan all their books and make it available through Google book search.  Again, if the book happens to be in public domain (out of copyright), Google will let you download it.  If it is in-copyright, you will be presented with snippets.   It is important to note that Google didn’t seek the approval of the authors of these books for the project. Google proclaimed that for the books under copyright, they are allowed to present just a snippet like a card catalog view under the Fair Use doctrine.  Authors Guild on the other hand felt differently and viewed this as a blatant copyright violation and sued Google back in September 2005.  According to them..

“It’s not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.”

Beyond the tangible ad revenue generation, having a strong component of book content in its search index will provide a clear intangible benefit for Google to further cement its dominant position as the world’s preferred engine.  After two and half years of negotiation, in October 2008, Google reached a $125 Million settlement with Authors Guild.  You can read all the details of the settlement here.  The bottom line here was that if Google was going to scan and present material from an author’s  work for a profit (think google book results with google ads), then those authors as the creators of that work deserved a piece of the pie.  It also gives Google the legal thumbs up to digitize all books written to date still in-copyright, use them for research and other purposes with permission.  Every public library in the country will get one free subscription for one computer that will let users read and print any page from the full text of all the books in Google’s catalog, excluding books still in-print.  Authors can choose whether to let Google include their works, sell them online, and show snippets and ads. They can also opt-out and reserve the right to negotiate their own terms or sue Google later if Google includes their works.

For all new books, Google solicits the authors and publishers to participate in a partners program to allow them to index a certain portion of the book based on the agreement and receive a certain portion of the money from ads shown next to their pages based on the agreement.  The hope  here is that it is a win-win situation for everyone.

Sounds fair.  What is the problem?  All’s well that ends well, you say?  Ah, but it doesn’t end there, not yet.  While Google can forge ahead with their mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful with the  firepower and brainpower at their disposal, they are also essentially required to deal with every single author there is or was, dead and alive, directly or indirectly at some level or another.

In reaching the settlement with Authors Guild, a new independent non-profit organization was formed called the Books Rights Registry (BRR) that collects and disburses revenue from third party users such as Google Book Search to authors, publishers and other rightsholders.  Authors and publishers can go there to  register or opt-out and negotiate their own settlement or sue Google if their works show up in Google Book Search.  In order to prevent Google from monopolizing this market space, the BRR can even negotiate with other entities that are interested in providing similar services as Google Book Search.  Again, sounds extremely fair, but here lies the true point of contention.  BRR can do this only for the known authors of the copyrighted books it can speak for. There is an hitherto unknown portion of books  still in-copyright whose right holders are not found or unknown — the portion of the works termed “orphan works“.  This is really the crux of the issue.  How large is this number?

Of the 7 million books Google has scanned, 1 million are in full preview mode as part of formal publisher agreements. Another 1 million are public domain works. Most of the other 5 million aren’t in print or commercially available.

No one knows for sure how many of these rights holders for these 5 million books are unknown or unrepresented!  This leads to several complications in determining what is fair and unfair.

I am not a lawyer and am dumb as a doorknob when it comes to legal matters, but as I understand it, because of the lawsuit and the ensuing settlement, and since all U.S. book copyright holders are now plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Google gets liability protection from authors who abandoned their books by not registering in its books database.  That is a very big deal when it comes to potentially expensive nature of copyright infringements.

Lets say, if one of those 5 million old books starts selling like hot cakes or the hits from its search results in a chunk of revenue.  What if a relative of the rights holder shows up one fine day claiming rights.  Since the settlement only applies to Google, is it fair that they can’t sue Google (only Google) for copyright infringements?  In the interest of non-discriminatory practices, even if BRR offers similar rights to other organizations, they can only offer this for authors in their registry.   The only way that organization can preclude themselves from being sued by potential orphan rights holders is if they went through the exact same exercise as Google, started scanning a bunch of material without asking their authors, and putting it up in their searches and got sued and reached a similar settlement.  This is just plain ridiculous.  While some of the reaction is mere posturing and untrue, there is no denying that Google would be reaping the benefits of being sued first in this instance!

Sony Reader

Sony Reader

Even as the Department of Justice is reported to be investigating the settlement,  Amazon and Microsoft and Yahoo, who view this settlement as a threat, formed an Open Book Alliance to oppose the settlement.  The final hearing on the settlement is in October 2009, but the battle lines are being drawn as Sony entered the picture today supporting Google in the settlement.

Kindle - Amazon Reader

Kindle - Amazon Reader

Why is Sony interested?  The same reason that Amazon is interested, the budding market of eBook readers.  While Amazon has the market share with its Kindle, the Sony Reader, its competitor is a distant second, and with 7 Million books already scanned by Google, Sony sees this as an opportunity to sell millions of e-books, while Amazon sees this as a clear threat to their market share.

It might take a while for the dust to settle, but just as an end user who enjoys reading, the concept of one humongous library for all research and reading is exciting and can’t wait for it to come to fruition.  I use several Google services including Google Book Search now, and in general hold Google with high regard for the sensitivity with which they run their business.  I also find it extremely ironic that Microsoft is in a way accusing another company of being the beneficiary of a monopolistic behavior, but in the interest of fairness, they do have a point with Orphan Works and Google Book Search.

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