Google Books, Settlements, and You

09 Oct 2012

You may have read the stories last week about Google’s settlement with book publishers about the copyright violation case that has been moving through the court system since 2005.

Books/Google Play

The Detroit News, Mandi Wright/Associated Press – FILE-In this Monday, Dec. 13, 2004, file photo, Vince Lee, 34, a library staffer at the University of Michigan’s Buhr Shelving Facility, stands among the 2.4 million books that will be digitized in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Digitized books on Google have been a tremendous boon to genealogists. The widespread availability of published records, compiled genealogies, local histories, etc., has made it even easier to research.

But a few years ago Google started their effort to digitize not only out-of-copyright books, but as many books as possible from the world’s libraries. This caused a problem with both publishers and authors, with groups of both suing the internet giant for copyright infringement. So how will the current settlement affect you as a researcher? The answer is, maybe not as much as you think.

For books still under copyright protection, Google does not display the entire contents. You can only see snippets of the work online. Google then provides links so users can purchase the books and see the rest of the text. You may ask yourself why the authors and publishers are suing for copyright infringement when Google only displays part of the text.

Google’s claim amounts to their belief that it falls under the “fair use” clause of the copyright law. Unfortunately, this has not been upheld by a court, because both groups have settled their suits with Google (although the author’s settlement was thrown out by a judge who felt it gave Google more rights than allowed).

Under the current settlement with the publishers, Google can display up to 20% of any book that the publishers agree can be displayed. Google can also provide links to purchase the books independently, or through Google Play.

Since this only applies to books that had partial displays already, the effect on genealogists is not overly crushing. The only time problems will be incurred is when a publisher does not allow Google to display the book at all. That may keep researchers from discovering books that might apply to their research.

If anything, it may expand research options. Publishers may allow Google to display books that have long been out of print, but are still under copyright. This may create a new market for books that previously were not worth reprinting. Modern print-on-demand printing can make it more cost effective to produce these works. Meanwhile, we await the new outcome of the authors’ suit.

Many stories have been written about this. Claire Cain Miller has a good article published in the New York Times on Thursday, Google Deal Gives Publishers a Choice: Digitize or Not. Antone Gonsalves wrote about the case on ReadWriteWeb in Google-Publisher Deal Ignores the Elephant in the Room: Fair Use.