Google Books settlement thrown out

A federal judge threw out a complicated legal settlement reached between Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers, which set out rules by which Google could digitize and share copyrighted works.

The settlement had allowed Google to scan and digitize books (offered up by a number of University libraries) in exchange for compensation to book publishers and authors. The deal also restricted how much of certain books Google was allowed to place online. The settlement, negotiated last year, was enormously complicated and difficult to reach. But it paved the way for Google’s pretty cool effort to digitize enormous numbers of books and make them searchable online. Google has already digitized something like 15 million books from a dozen or so University libraries.

Now, as many predicted, it’s been thrown out in federal court, sending the two sides back to square one. Predictably, judge Denny Chin had copyright issues with the settlement. More importantly, he struck the settlement down on anti-trust grounds because it would have given Google unique rights to profit from many books, especially orphaned works whose authors are unknown.

The deal is a win for some authors and book sellers who benefit from additional sales, but it’s a big loss for people who need to do quick, cost-effective online research.

As a student, Google Books is an invaluable resource. It has books that Princeton’s library doesn’t have and take days to get through Borrow Direct otherwise. I can search the text of a book for the most relevant material rather than searching manually and less accurately with an index or table of contents. If I need to quickly reference one or two pages, I can look them up without trekking to a library.

In short, it makes life far simpler and easier even for someone who has access to a 6 million volume University library system. For the average person without access to that sort of resource, it’s even more important.

Fortunately, the decision leaves the door open for a revised settlement. This means that Google Books could return, perhaps on more open terms that allow more players into the game. Hopefully the decision will be net beneficial for consumers of information, not for copyright holders who already enjoy excessively zealous protections.

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