What's at stake in Google's plan to digitize all the world's books

Google, publishers, and authors asked a judge for another 60 days Wednesday to hammer out a deal to make Google Books a reality. The agreement could shape the nascent industry.

By , Staff writer

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    Staff members at the University of California at Santa Cruz McHenry Library truck a small portion of the thousands of books UCSC will send to Google to be scanned for their Google Books search engine.
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Google's long-running effort to digitize the world’s books was back in court Wednesday, as a judge met with the Internet giant and its class-action foes in the publishing world over a scheme that could shape the future of publishing in the Internet era.

Earlier this year, Google thought it had struck a deal with the Authors' Guild and a coalition of publishers over how it would proceed with its plan, which it began in 2002 and publishers had challenged in court in three years later. But in March, both Circuit Judge Denny Chin and the antitrust arm of the US Department of Justice rejected the deal, saying it would give Google a virtual monopoly in many aspects of online publishing.

At stake are the rules that will govern the nascent online publishing industry and how it might evolve. Critics want some assurance that Google Books won't put authors out of business by making everything available online for free. Some authors and publishers, by contrast, see Google Books as an invaluable – and potentially profitable – way to keep obscure and out-of-print books vital and available.

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For Judge Chin and the Justice Department regulators, however, Google's bid to scan, post, and profit from millions of out-of-print books with unclear copyright claims – so called "unclaimed" or "orphan" books – runs the risk of running roughshod over an industry that is only now beginning to find its feet.

As Chin put it in March: The deal “would give Google a de facto monopoly over unclaimed works” as well as “a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.”

The path ahead

Lawyers representing both Google and the coalition of authors and publishers met in a New York courtroom Wednesday to update the judge on how they are doing in addressing these concerns. "We have been working closely with the authors and publishers to explore a number of options in response to the court's decision," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "At today's status hearing, we asked the court for more time to discuss those options."

The court granted a 60-day extension.

The judge laid out a road map of issues in March, including whether to enact an opt-in or an opt-out system for authors whose works are being digitized. This is a primary concern for some authors.

As Google pursues its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, it comes into direct conflict with the creators of that information who wish to make a living,” says David Runyon, a librarian at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, via e-mail.

“Universally accessible” carries connotations of “free,” he notes. “While I hesitate to suggest the Google book digitization project will endanger literature, free expression, art, or anything else, it is another step in the erosion of our understanding of information as property.”

"Unless Google is willing to compensate information creators for their work (and buy authors’ permission to distribute those works), then we cannot expect anyone to take up information creation as a profession,” he adds.

Some authors enthusiastic

But not all authors are so wary of Google Books. "Access to the accumulated knowledge represented by out-of-print books, if it can even be worked out, would be a boon for authors, publishers, and for the world of knowledge at large,” says Scott Turow, president of the Authors' Guild.

The challenges are significant, though. If the solution were simple, it would not have dragged on for more than half a decade. “Publishers and authors don’t have the time or money [to litigate], and while Google has the money, I don’t know if it wants to open itself up to fair-use claims, which could be a huge headache for them," says Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publisher’s Weekly. "Google is moving very deliberately and trying to find common ground."

Some critics have suggested this effort with Google has made authors "Google's lap dog."

But Peter Atkins, author of "Life Is Short and So Is This Book," refutes such ideas. "I'm 100 percent in favor of Google digitizing the world's books," he says in an e-mail. "As a consumer and business person I want to be able to access the world's knowledge easily – and books are a big part of that knowledge base. And as a writer, I want my book to be available to as many people as possible."

"But, as I've learned now from over 16 years of being involved with the Internet, change comes slowly and entrenched interests frequently fight it every step of the way," he adds.

Next frontier: privacy rights

While privacy issues are not explicitly addressed in the current agreement, their rising importance is yet another element of the digital future of books – and one that Google or any competitor will have to address, says Rebecca Jeschke, spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

“We need to make sure the privacy we had in physical reading doesn’t get lost as we move into the digital era,” she says, noting that the ability to track behavior and habits “is extraordinarily detailed, from margin notes to chapters skipped and ideas shared.”

Whether it’s Google Books or an e-reader, she adds, “this is the next big horizon that will have to be negotiated.”

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