A Quick Look at the Google Book Search Settlement


US district court judge Denny Chin will be ruling in a case on how we access printed books in the future. Who’s in the middle of a bid for our literary heritage? Google, of course.

For the past four years, Google has been making digital copies of books and making these copies searchable on their website. According to Observer columnist John Naughton, Google now has digital copies of more than five million books, a project begun without seeking the approval of authors or publishers. Legal suits were filed on the part of authors in 2005, but Google utilized the “fair use” provision of US copyright law as protection. Google’s argument: the benefits in making books accessible to all those with internet access are greater than the damage to an owner of literary property.

In October 2008, Google proposed a settlement that would release it from liability from past and future acts that could be interpreted as copyright infringement. In return, the company would pay $125m (an amount approximate to a little less than two days revenue at Google.) Oh, and Google would share ad revenues with authors and publishers.

As Naughton states in his article, this suit effectively “gives one company a stranglehold on mankind’s literary heritage.” New York Law School Professor James Grimmelmann acknowledges in his commentary on the case that if this settlement is approved, Google will “have the closest thing to a universal library that the world has ever seen.”

Is this a bad or good thing? Google has the power to amplify the accessibility of intellectual property. Individuals can reach out to their little mouse and click towards a book that would otherwise be hidden in the stacks of a research university. The idea that any book could be digitally available is exciting, and Naughton concedes that Google’s plans have social benefit.

The columnist, however, urges us to think of the downsides. One company would control a large portion of our cultural heritage, and this may be cause for concern. For example, Google and the digital rights industry would alone determine access fees to digital works. Michael Liedtke notes that questions have also been raised about how much data the company plans to raise about what people are reading and how such information will be dealt with. Google has already responded to these queries with an initial draft of its privacy policy for books.

In “The Google Book Search Settlement: Ends, Means, and the Future of Books,” James Grimmelmann investigates this case that may be key in upcoming changes in the world of electronic publishing. Grimmelmann concludes that Google’s settlement “serves respectable ends through questionable means.” He believes that because the deal is struck via private negotiations amongst a select few, it neglects broader public interests. Grimmelmann states that the court is being asked to begin to reshape copyright law as it must be reshaped in a new digital age, but we have the right “to insist that our interest, the public interest, be reflected in the outcome.”

Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →