The Google Book Search Case -- for Dummies*

Last Updated Aug 5, 2009 11:22 PM EDT

* That would include me.

Imagine this â€" a free global virtual library containing almost every book published over the past century (and beyond) in many languages and formats â€"all reproduced in digital form, courtesy of Google.

These e-books will be searchable, downloadable, and shareable â€" a treasure trove of "intellectual property" (IP) that until now has remained essentially locked away in academic and government repositories.

What I am describing already exists at Google Books, but only at a fraction of the size Google intends to achieve.

But what if what I described as a virtual library actually turns out to be a virtual bookstore, one controlled by a monopoly?

While there is nothing (beyond time, resources, and imagination) to stop any other party from scanning the physical books from our pre-digital past and convert them into the eBooks of our future, critics believe Google has such a huge lead on the competition that it will enjoy what is essentially monopolistic control over the sales of many eBooks going forward.

So let's re-examine three of those keywords -- searchable, downloadable, and shareable from a business perspective.

These represent three separate business opportunities:
  1. Search, which, of course, is Google's core competency. Google makes 97% of its revenue from advertising against search results.
  2. Downloads of books. This is where companies like Amazon intend to make their money. They have products like the Kindle e-reader that cost a lot of money but that can allow you to gain access to thousands of titles at the cost of about $10 each.
  3. Sharing. While how to monetize sharing may be still in question, you can bet that executives at Twitter and Facebook will find the way to do so soon.
Now I used the phrase "intellectual property" (IP) to describe books. Under copyright law in the U.S., and in other societies, the author, publisher, and certain other parties have rights regarding how their book (IP) is republished, sold, and circulated.

IP presents an almost hopeless tangle of legalities, with all sorts of tricky issues to keep lawyers busy for years â€" for example, how to determine what to do about the millions of "orphan" works, i.e., those for whom no known copyright holder can be identified or located today

These issues and others triggered the lawsuit against Google by certain organizations purporting to represent those of us who write books in the hope of protecting our rights from exploitation by Google. These groups include the Author's Guild, which represents a tiny portion of authors (mainly the rich and successful ones) and they have recently reached a settlement with Google of their class-action lawsuit.

Under the terms of this proposed settlement, Google will fund a rights registry to handle the thorny IP issues, plus the search giant will pay those of us who opt into the settlement a one-time fee for the right to include our books in its book search feature

Google will also generously share the advertising revenue it collects from that big business of search mentioned above. Whether Google intends to actively compete for the revenue from the sales of e-books remains a little unclear to me at the moment.

Back to the business of sharing of e-books. I'm not sure that anyone has thoroughly thought out the implications of this new potential business model quite yet, but in a culture where there once was a Napster, there's bound to be a similar entry in this field soon.

As if all of these complexities were not enough, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the proposed settlement of this class-action lawsuit.
This would seem to indicate that the government is concerned about the size and scale of Google's plans as well.

Recently, three large organizations representing librarians have intervened, asking the Antitrust Division to become actively involved in overseeing the final settlement of the class-action suit, perhaps even issuing a de-facto Consent Decree, which is what the Justice Department might have done had it originated this entire matter as an anti-trust probe in the first place.

How this all turns out is anybody's guess. And the rosy scenario I outlined in my lede â€" of a massive, free virtual library open to all â€" may or may not emerge intact from the legalistic processes now underway.

All I know, as a writer, is any revenue this project sends my way will be the first I've seen from my out-of-print books in decades. Sharing in any incremental advertising revenue as people search through my old books sounds real good, too.

But what sounds best of all is the idea that the work I and my coauthors did years ago, which has long been locked away and out of view, may finally get to join the 21st Century.

Related Links:
Librarians Ask DoJ to Intervene in Google Books Case "Three prominent library groups have asked the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) to "advise the court" supervising the proposed settlement of a class action suit against Google Books by several organizations purporting to represent authors..."

The New Book: An Interactive, Networked Gathering Place Writing in Humanities magazine, a bimonthly review published by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Steve Moyer has taken a detailed look at the future of books and of the act of reading itself.

Amazon's Plan to Insert Ads into e-Books "Leading up to the big holiday weekend, Amazon quietly applied for patents to insert ads into e-Books, including old and out-of-print publications, as well as in newly printed versions available via the curious phrase "on-demand printing..."

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Time to Slow Down that Google Book Search Deal "As the proposed settlement by Google of a class-action lawsuit by authors over its Google Book Search rushes toward an impending judicial resolution, it's become apparent that it's time to pull the emergency brake on this one..."

The Sweet Spot: How Print and Mobile Will Converge "If you've been struggling to imagine how newspapers, magazines and books will be able to survive the historic transformation to online digital media, one answer may be that you may have gotten stuck at the desktop and/or laptop stage of thinking..."

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Momentum Shifts Against Google in Old Books Controversy "A number of new developments in the proposed settlement of a class action suit between Google and some authors over who will control the publishing rights of millions of out-of-print books indicate that the growing opposition to the terms of that settlement are gaining momentum..."

Amazon Buys iPhone eBook App Stanza "It's a sign of our times when a small company announces on its blog that it's been acquired by a huge company, and then a New York Times blogger pushes that news out to the large audience always hungry for tech news online, especially when the way I find out about all of this is via a virtual community I recently joined that circulates info via a listserv on intellectual property issues..."

Amazon, the Kindle, and the Future of All Books New York City "...you can't turn around in this town without bumping into yet another laid off editor...

Writers, Sign Up for your Check from Google Books! "Whatever published authors may think about Google's ambitious plan to digitize more or less every book ever published, the company's recent settlement of a class-action lawsuit with publishers and authors creates a potential new revenue stream, albeit a small one, for us that I believe is worth pursuing..."

Quillp: "Where Books Find Friends" "Another intriguing experiment about how to exploit the web's search, networking, and publishing technologies to help authors, readers and publishers all find each other is on the scene..."

Digital Books Selling Like Hotcakes "Right around the time this piece posts, attendees at a panel discussion entitled "The Rise of eBooks" at O'Reilly's "Tools of Change" conference will gather in a sixth floor Manhattan venue to discuss the future..."

Will Recession Help E-Books Emerge?
Smashwords CEO Evaluates e-Book Market Regarding today's news that Amazon sold an estimated 500,000 Kindles last year, I asked Mark Coker, founder/CEO of Smashwords, the digital self-publishing company, for his reaction...

Analyst: Half a Million Kindles Sold in '08 "For reasons that have never been entirely clear, Amazon.com has not been at all forthcoming about its Kindle e-book reader. One aspect no doubt has to do with the company's choice to employ a proprietary technology in an age when open-source products are proliferating..."

Smashwords Takes eBooks Mobile "Memo to book publishers: Beware of the rejected novelist! That may prove to be the moral of the story of Smashwords, a digital self-publishing platform started by entrepreneur Mark Coker after..."

The Future of Books "As the age of print approaches its final years, its most treasured form -- the book -- stands much like Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, surrounded, doomed, and all too soon to be slaughtered unmercifully..."
  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.

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