Explaining the Google Books Case Saga

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A federal court yesterday rejected a settlement between Google, authors and publishers, throwing into doubt the search company’s plans to make every book ever published searchable online.

Acknowledging in his opinion that “the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many,” federal district court judge Denny Chin ultimately decided that the proposed agreement was “not fair, adequate and reasonable.”

Origins of the Google Books Case

This is the latest twist in a six-year legal saga that began when Google announced in 2004 that it was partnering with several research universities around the world to scan their entire library collections. Google would then make the digitized copies available for search online. To date Google has scanned over 12 million books.

Scanning a book means copying it, and copying a book without permission from the publisher or author is a violation of copyright. Soon after the announcement, publisher and author groups began protesting Google’s ambitious plan as a violation of their rights. If Google was going to use their works, they wanted to be asked for permission—and they wanted a cut of any profits.

Google maintained that scanning the books was “fair use.” While all books would be indexed and searchable on the Google Books site, users would only be able to access the full text of books that were out of copyright and in the public domain. If a book was still under copyright, and its rights-holder had not given permission, then a search would only return a small “snippet” of text, not the whole book or even a page.

In mid-2005, the Author’s Guild and the American Association of Publishers filed suit to stop Google from scanning any more books. Soon the Author’s Guild’s case was certified as a class-action lawsuit, meaning that anyone who had ever published a book—millions of authors—would be part of the class represented and would be bound by the result of the case.

An Unsettling Settlement

Three years later, after extensive negotiations, the parties announced they had reached a settlement. Google would pay $125 million up front and would then be allowed to continue scanning books and making them available online. More importantly, Google would be allowed to offer not just snippets, but it would be allowed to sell entire text of books as well. The copyright holder would get about 2/3 of the revenues and Google would keep 1/3.

On its surface, the proposed settlement was a boon for all involved. Google would get to continue digitizing books, authors and publishers would get a cut of the profits, and consumers would get universal access to almost all of the world’s books. But reading between the lines, the settlement proved to be problematic.

Because it was a settlement to a class-action lawsuit, it meant that all authors who had ever published a book were bound. Google could scan any book without first asking for permission. If an author didn’t want his book to be scanned or included in Google’s database, he had to contact Google and opt-out. This would have turned copyright on its head.

As a result, many authors protested. The Author’s Guild and the publisher’s association had negotiated on behalf of millions of authors, and many felt the deal didn’t represent their wishes. Almost 7,000 authors wrote to the court asking to be removed from the lawsuit’s plaintiff class.

Saving the Orphans

Another contentious aspect of the settlement was how it treated “orphan works,” books the authors of which are unknown or can’t be found. It’s a well-known problem in copyright that members of Congress have tried to fix several times.

The problem is that if a company like Google wants to digitize a copyrighted book, and it can’t find its author to ask for permission, then its choices are 1) scan the book anyway and face heavy penalties if the author surfaces later and sues, or 2) leave the book undigitized and out of a universal library. As a result, hundreds of thousands of books are in a kind of limbo, not accessible to readers even if the author may well have been fine with digitization.

The Google Books settlement presented a solution to the problem. Because it bound all authors—-known and unknown—-Google could proceed to scan orphan works without having to worry. If an author later surfaced who didn’t want his book used, he could no longer sue Google. He could opt-out of the program and claim a check for the revenues associated with his book, but no more.

Some welcomed this solution to the problem, but others, including the Department of Justice, pointed out to the court that it would give Google a monopoly over orphan works. Because the settlement would only apply to Google, if another party like Amazon or the Internet Archive wanted to create its own digital library that included orphan works, it would not get the same protection.

And it wouldn’t be easy for other to get the same deal. Short of Congressional action, the only way a company like Amazon could get similar treatment would be to settle a class action suit of their own—a very difficult and time-consuming set of events to replicate. Additionally, because the authors and publishers who negotiated the Google deal are getting a cut of revenue, some have suggested that it would be in their interest to make sure Google remained a monopoly and would therefore not settle as easily with other parties.

What’s Next

Because class-action lawsuits can be as controversial as this one, the law requires that a court approve a settlement before it becomes binding. The court accepted over 500 briefs from various parties supporting or opposing the settlement and early last year held a hearing on the fairness of the settlement. It rejected the case yesterday.

The options available now to Google and the authors and publishers are:

  1. Continue litigating the original lawsuit, which is an unlikely scenario.
  2. Amend the settlement to make it opt-in, meaning that authors would have to give permission before their books are scanned.
  3. Appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court.

Judge Chin seemed to invite a new settlement, saying in his opinion that “Many of the concerns raised in the objections would be ameliorated if the [settlement] were converted from an ‘opt-out’ settlement to an ‘opt-in’ settlement.”

Statements released last night from the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers suggest that they are more interested in renegotiating the settlement than appealing the decision. Google so far has been mum on the matter.

As for orphan works, several bills addressing the issue have already been introduced in Congress this year.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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