How Google Books Works

Google Books Controversy and Proposed Settlements

Copyright, access and profit issues are at the center of the Google Books debate. Rights holders want more control over distribution of their work, and they also want part of the profits that Google generates from its digital archive. Google, on the other hand, wants more control over the information it is digitizing -- with better control, Google Books would not only become the world's biggest library, it could be the world's biggest bookstore, too.

In an initial settlement with the Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers, Google agreed to pay $125 million to the plaintiffs and also make some changes in the way it is using its Google Books database. Google agreed to create a Book Rights Registry, where authors and publishers can settle copyright claims [source: Metz].

Using the registry, rights holders can opt out of the Google Books project by refusing to let Google display their work. Of course, if you're an author or publisher from another country and you don't understand the registry, it would be easy to miss the opt-out deadline, meaning Google Books would automatically begin including your work in its search results.

In addition to the registry, the first settlement would've given Google exclusive license to scan and post pages of orphan works. These are books that still fall under copyright for which the rights owners cannot be tracked down. It could also sell digital downloads of the books and set its own prices, using the registry as a guide.

Concerned parties questioned the fairness of the settlement. They argued that Google's blatant copyright infringement had sparked a lawsuit that subsequently granted the offending company even more power over the materials it copied. The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in as well, encouraging the parties to replace the settlement with a fairer version.

In a revised version of the settlement, Google Books agreed to remove all books published outside the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. It also creates a trustee that manages royalties earned from access to orphan texts. So, instead of lining Google's coffers, this revenue may wind up in the hands of copyright holders who are eventually found -- if not, the proceeds could fund charities promoting literacy [source: Samuelson].

An additional change addresses issues with Google's exclusive license to use orphan works for profit. The newer settlement should, in theory, give other companies a better shot at competing with Google Books.