Rory Cellan-Jones

Google Books: The latest chapter

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Nov 09, 17:49 GMT

Reading the coverage over the last couple of days, you might think that the row over Google's plans to digitise the world's books was fading away.

Man reading text on a computerThe search company has responded to the anger of many in the publishing world by making concessions late last week which mean that most non-American titles will not be included. "Google backtracks on putting world's books online," read one headline today.

But actually it's a lot more complicated than that, as I discovered in the genteel surroundings of the Society of Authors in Kensington this lunchtime.

Representatives of publishers and authors in the US and UK had called a few journalists together to explain some of the details of this extraordinarily complex deal.

After an hour I think I might just about have got to grips with it - but let's boil it down to a few headlines.

• The deal envisages the digitisation of millions of out-of-print works that are in libraries in the United States.

• The number of books involved has now come down by 60%, following the decision to exclude most foreign language books.

• But books by UK, Australian and Canadian authors held in US libraries will be part of the programme, unless the authors or publishers opt out.

• Google users outside the United States will not have access to the service.

What was clear from the meeting was that the bodies representing US and UK authors and publishers are united in the belief that the deal is now satisfactory and should go through.

The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, which collects fees for writers, says it has received around 2,000 positive e-mails from its members, with only four or five opposed to the settlement.

But, I asked how could they all be so sanguine about the prospect of giving Google a foothold in online publishing which might eventually make an already powerful company the dominant force in the future of books?

They insisted that a deal involving out-of-print titles, a sector of the market which was by definition unprofitable, would not set a precedent: "Nobody expects the settlement to be the mechanism to make in-print books available to the general public," said Paul Aiken of the US Authors Guild.

He then picked up his copy of Amazon's e-book the Kindle to make the point that monopoly power currently resided elsewhere:

"Amazon has 90% of the e-book market in the United States, and 75% of the online print book market - Google has roughly 0%. Google entering the market for out-of-print books just isn't going to change the equation."

Simon Juden of the UK Publishers said that he and his colleagues across Europe were working on Arrow, an EU-funded system for putting out-of-print books online, which would be "much more platform-neutral".

Why, then, had his organisation backed this system which was so far from being neutral? "We sit where we sit," he replied, "to get where we are we started with a court action in 2005. In the real world, this is just where we are."

And one other thing is very clear - this story will have many more chapters. Even if the current settlement finally gets the approval of the US court, it may not come into force for some years.

"There are implacable opponents with money and they will appeal it," said the man from the US Publishers Association. So, who knows, perhaps a European online book platform could be up and running while Google's version remains trapped inside the American legal system.


  • Comment number 1.

    The days where one simply sits, manually turning the page, that wonderful feeling of paper on skin, while being totally immersed in a blooming good BOOK, are seemingly numbered. How sad.

  • Comment number 2.

    Let me understand this:

    A company does a deal in the US with the relevant copyright royalty collection agency about copyright material under which it pays an agreed, but low, royalty in order to allow internet access. In this case for stuff which is difficult to get hold of and is not in print in the US. The copyright owners have no say in the matter (oops they can opt out, but it is not as though the US company will chase the owner for the opt out).

    A company in Russia does a deal with its copyright royalty collection agency under which it pays an agreed but low royalty in order to allow internet access to the material. The copyright owners get no say in the matter.

    Of course the first one is books and Google so it is a good thing and the second is music and the Russian MP3 website and so is a bad thing.

    Total hypocracy.

    Whether or not the book is in print, if it is still in copyright, then if google want to publish it and, make money out of it, they need to do a deal with the copyright owner on a case by case basis. Anything else is nothing more than the US legalising copyright theft

  • Comment number 3.

    So what youre saying is...

    Google was full of ...(dont want moderators being offended)

    Does this mean Google was lying? Trying to get publicity from doing nothing (i.e. Amazon had already cornered this market?)

    I ..don't understand (obviously)

  • Comment number 4.

    Furthermore, this service, whatever it is, is only available to US residents!

    So basically, no single license-fee payer (terminology that seems to escape these bloggers), living and working in the UK, can actually appreciate this service legally!

    What a shame. This article reminds me of Maggie's work, really.

  • Comment number 5.

    Anything else is nothing more than the US legalising copyright theft

    States, including the US, grant authors a copyright for a specific purpose - to encourage them to make works available to the public. If authors abuse that right to make things unavailable, then they deserve to lose it.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi, nice article and a good review. I do however feel it has missed one of the main problems with Google books that many were complaining about. That is the notable omission of any mention of 'orphaned works' whereby the copyright holder cannot be found or identified. In the old agreement these would, in essence have become property of Google. I presume this isn't the case in the new agreement but could you please clarify? Thanks

  • Comment number 7.

    • But books by UK, Australian and Canadian authors held in US libraries will be part of the programme, unless the authors or publishers opt out.

    • Google users outside the United States will not have access to the service.

    Oh yes, I'm thrilled about this. And apparantly UK authors are a-okay with the whole deal? I wonder who they've been asking.

    I don't mind the out of copyright books and orphaned works going online, but I do object to the fact Google can make money out of orphaned works from this. Just because no one knows who the copyright holder is doesn't mean they don't exist, and they don't have rights. What happens if someone recognises grandaddy's name on a Google book and comes forward? Do they get the rights back? Can they still opt out?

    Imagine if a private company got to profit from everyone who died in testate, rather than it going to the state. A lot of people would argue the state shouldn't get it, but would they really rather Google did?

    What gets me most is it's opt out. You have to tell Google you don't want to be part of it. Your publishers have to tell Google. Otherwise, Google will assume you do (and there was a deadline for opting out originally - is there going to be another, or did we all miss the boat?). You had to opt in just to tell Google that you wanted a say in how your books were archived - just the details, the cover, a sample or the whole darned thing. You actually had less rights opting out, and left yourself more open to having your books abused.

    (and Amazon's market share corresponds to books currently for sale, not orphaned books. Most of them are still in copyright. It's more comparable to the Gutenberg project, but Google wouldn't look like such an underdog then, not considering the considerable library of our of print books they already have online)

  • Comment number 8.

    Well , I must say I respect all the writers & publishers about their concern over Google effort to develop the platform for books which are out-of-print. I think instead of pointing fingers towards each other we should appericate the effort which has been made by Google to bring such digital books. Because it feels like in the near future, reading a paper book will be a fashion rather than a trend. I think Google should try to approach to third world countries where the books go out-of-print a lot quicker than developed countries where people can continously print the same version of the book. I'm sure there a lot of countries which will come on-board with google if the international effort is made. It will benefit the readers may be not in my generation but years after you will be remembered for this effort. I do agree Google could lead us by example & rest may follow. But knowledge shouldn't be a property it should be shared globally so the effort should be made that people around the globe should benefit from this effort. I want to ask ruling by EU, that it shouldn't be available here it should be only available to readers in US. Well that means you are pushing yourself away from trends of future. Likewise, after WWII Japanese came up with policy of management, which was denied at the time by US but Japanese fought by into global market through that. Seems like Europe is denying an option forward like US denied after post-war. Well which is not good news for any readers in EU, but I must say either EU should join hands with Google or come up with something which can give something to us as reader.

  • Comment number 9.

    The GBS is a disaster for Non-US/UK/AU scientists. scientists are a small subcommunity of authors, who want to be read, who are paid to be read (their scientific publications), and the easy access promotes the progress of science.
    Thus to exclude the non-anglo-saxon authors is a disaster for them and by being less informed on the non-A-S literature also for the A-S scientists.
    What is needed for this subset of authors is a settlement with Google such that Google should have the non-exclusive right to scan in scientific content books from anywhere and post it free of charge (zero page charge) to the reader. This is also called Open Access. Google should be free to make some money ( pay the scanning, to have a motive) by advertisement on the side of the screen.
    This is the general strategy of the Action Committee for Copyright for Science and Academic Learning [Urheberrechtsbuendnis für Bildung und Wissenschaft].
    What this clientel need is: an opt-in channel, not an opt-out channel.


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