Google to adopt millions of orphan books, put them to work

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Let's pretend Susan Author wrote a book about chess cheaters, "The Bad Check," in 1973. You need it to finish your thesis. However, the book is out of print, still under copyright, and it will take weeks to get your hands on a copy. Your problem could be worth millions to Google, if the courts agrees with its settlement with the Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

Google recently agreed to pay $125 million to settle the lawsuit brought by the guild and others which claimed that Google's Book project violated copyrights by scanning out-of-print books that are still under copyright and making them available over the internet. The books at the heart of the controversy are those for which there is no clear rights holder, called "orphan books." For example, perhaps Susan Author is no long among us, her heirs untraceable, and the publisher is out of business. In this case, "The Bad Check" would be an orphan book.

The negotiated agreement gives Google the right to show a 20 preview preview of any orphan book it has scanned. Google will also have the right to sell full electronic access to the entire contents of "The Bad Check" or any other orphan book, at a price determined by Google. Google gets to keep 37 percent of the money, while 63 percent will go to a new not-for-profit entity, the Book Rights Registry. The BRR will distribute the dough as best it can to benefit the writing and reading public.

The New York District Court just extended the deadline for comments on the Google Book Search Copyright Settlement until September 7, 2009 and issued a Civil Investigative Demands, sometimes called a civil subpoena. These actions are partly in response to the protests of a number of organizations and authors who are opposed to the settlement because they feel it grants Google a quasi-monopoly on this huge corpus of books.

If another internet vendor, say Amazon, wanted to also sell orphan books, they would have to duplicate the six-year effort Google has devoted to scanning over seven million works, including Harvard's library, the Bavarian State Library, the National Library of Catalonia, and the University of Michigan's library. The barrier to entry in this market will be huge, especially now that the owners of these books understand the revenue potential.

This question is only one of the reasons that some are crying anti-trust over Google's market dominance. I'm very uneasy about Google's pricing, lack of competition and how the new BRR will function. I'd hate to see that huge pool of money end up in the hands of puppets of the publishing industry.

The controversy should spark interesting conversation in the coming months. As you follow the story, keep in mind that this is not about books; it's about money. Follow the money.

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