Guest Blog Post: The Google Books Settlement–It’s Not Too Late to Fix It

Judge Chin’s recet ruling that that the Google Books Settlement was not “fair, adequate and reasonable” was a victory for authors everywhere who depend on copyright, and particularly for those authors and their heirs whose works were inappropriately labeled “orphans.” It’s gratifying to see so many of the objections raised by authors and authors’ groups cited in the judge’s ruling.

From the beginning, the settlement raised fundamental questions about copyright and the rights of authors to control who uses and profits from the books, stories, and articles that they’ve created. The settlement would have given Google the right to use and profit from millions of books simply because they had digitized them, as well as the exclusive right to publish out of print “orphan” books. The settlement was widely regarded as “audacious” because of its casual disregard for the rights of authors, and rightly so. It attempted an end-run around copyright law for the benefit of Google by using a loophole in U. S. class action law. It was a legal monstrosity that Judge Chin rejected, declaring that “a copyright owner’s right to exclude others from using his property is fundamental and beyond dispute.”

The parties to the settlement have wasted much time and millions of dollars because they were too greedy, and wanted everything.

The question now becomes, “where do we go from here?” The parties were left free to negotiate a new settlement, or continue the original lawsuit. Judge Chin concluded that “many of the concerns raised in the objections would be ameliorated if the ASA (Amended Settlerment Agreement) were converted from an ‘opt-out’ settlement to an ‘opt-in’ settlement.” This is what many authors have been saying from the beginning. However, the details of such an opt-in regime are crucial to determining whether it could be found “fair, adequate and reasonable” to authors. If done correctly, an opt-in would allow authors to explicitly choose to participate in Google’s publishing program in the same way they decide whether to license their work to any other publisher.

Depending on how it was implemented, an opt-in Google Book Store might be a very good thing for authors, and the creation of an opt-in Book Rights Registry would also function to benefit them, as well as making inroads into the orphan works problem. The goal would be to create a new market for authors of out of print works, which would be in competition with Amazon and other e-book publishers. The key here is that Google is in a position to offer authors and other rightsholders of out-of-print works a deal that would be very attractive. It would be especially appealing for authors of out of print works who don’t have the money or technical expertise to create an e-book out of their work.

Some commentators have said that, since Google already offers authors the opportunity to publish through the Google Books Partner Program, it would be meaningless to have another opt-in publishing program, but the partner program is simply not attractive enough to give Google what it wants. In order to attract a very large number of authors to opt in, Google would have to make an offer that went far beyond the terms of the current partner program, giving rightsholders exceptional flexibility for their publications and offering most of the income from book sales to the authors, financing the program primarily from book search-related advertising revenue. In short, if they offer a good enough deal, authors will come and opt in.

A voluntary Book Rights Registry would go a long way to satisfy one of the Copyright Office’s recommendations about how to deal with the orphan works problem, by creating and maintaining a searchable registry of rightsholders’ contact information which could be used by publishers as they performed a “diligent search” for a work’s owner(s).

Orphan works pose a very real challenge under current copyright law, and an opt-in settlement does not address the problem. That’s entirely appropriate, because, as Judge Chin says, “a mechanism for exploiting unclaimed works is a matter more suited for Congress than this Court.” Hopefully, the defeat of the settlement in its current form will refocus efforts to address the orphan works problem where they belong, in the legislative branch of the government.

In order to reach a settlement that all authors can embrace, much work has to be done. There are still many valid concerns about how payments are split between authors and publishers–especially concerning works for which electronic rights were never licensed–and about the default assumption that publishers retain rights for the out of print works that they have abandoned.

Although making the settlement opt-in addresses most of the copyright, antitrust, and international law issues cited by Judge Chin, there are still problems with user privacy, security, and adequate class representation. Many of these problems result from the lack of diversity in authors represented in the settlement negotiation. For the settlement to truly represent all authors, the Authors Guild must include other writers’ groups in future settlement talks. The creation and administration of the Book Rights Registry, in particular, is too important to be reserved to one writers’ group.

Larry Page, who has recently returned as CEO of Google, initiated the wholesale scanning of books as a way towards an all-inclusive Alexandria Library of the future. If he is genuinely interested in doing no evil, opt-in is the only course open to him, and, by financing a genuinely revolutionary system that gives authors a deal no one else can match, he will bring about the digital revolution that he wants, without violating antitrust or copyright law.


  1. Michael,

    I, too, am very concerned about what Google will do with all those millions of books they are still scanning on an ongoing basis, including brand-new books not covered under the Settlement. I am also very concerned that however Google wants to use them, Google will do so anyway regardless of whether the authors opt into any voluntary program or not.

    I understand from James Grimmelman's blog is that any other aggrieved party can now file suit, and filing suit would enable that party to ask the court for an injunction that will make Google halt the scanning. I am longing for some writers' group(s) to do that.

  2. Frances —

    For the most part, I agree with you, but Google's scanning, and the lawsuit, are not going to go away; and there's a real chance that authors could lose the lawsuit if it continues. I think that the opt-in settlement I described, with the caveats that I added (which gibe with your concerns) is the best possible outcome. I believe that the creation of a Book Rights Registry would be very beneficial, and this may be the only way one will ever come about.

    Do I think that anything like this will happen? Not really. But everyone else is pontificating about what should happen next, and an author friendly opt-in settlement with Google financing the BRR is, in my opinion, the best case scenario.

  3. Michael,

    My problem is this: Google massively and knowingly violated copyright law. I simply will never do business with a publisher/bookstore with ethics like that. No matter what kind of deal they offer me.

    I also belong to the camp that feels Google largely pursued the Settlement to gain the right to sell books it could not gain the right to sell otherwise. These include the so-called orphan works, but others as well, such as books where the rights holder did not respond to Google either by opting into the Settlement (or the Google Partner program) or by actively opting out of it.

    There are also those who feel that some large publishers were in favor of the Settlement because it effectively granted e-rights to publishers that were not granted under the publisher/author contract. Note that the Settlement would have made every author who did not opt out of it, agree not to file suit if their publisher grabbed e-rights.

    Now that the judge has legally and finally dismissed the concept of any "forward-looking business arrangement" at all being imposed on rights holders on an opt-out basis, I don't see that the Settlement will be of any more use to Google than the Partner Program. If Google wants to attract rights holders on an opt-in basis, it will have to structure a good deal for them, and the Settlement is not a necessary way to do that, or in my view an appropriate one.

    My guess is that the suit may go back to what was the original issue–"snippets" of books used to enrich Google's search-engine content. Which is another point made by Judge Chin and many others–the Settlement has very little to do with what the suit was filed about. It is supposed to redress the wrongs originally claimed when the suit was filed, and not structure a much larger business arrangement.

    I am not a lawyer either but that is my understanding of the situation.

  4. Frances, I would contend that the parties to the settlement could add other writers' groups to the disposition of the Book Rights Registry, arbitration panels, etc. without adding them to the lawsuit, and the Authors Guild could even include them in settlement talks, not that I think that's likely.

    As to your other point, IANAL, so I don't know the answer.

  5. See lawyer James Grimmelman's post at:

    and his other blog posts.

    The salient points: "Judge Chin’s order rejecting the settlement also inherently unwinds the preliminary approval." This includes the class certification. Also, "the injunction against overlapping suits is now gone. If any authors or publishers don’t like the plaintiffs’ conduct of the suit and would prefer to go after Google directly, they’re now free to again."

    Also, I suggest asking Grimmleman this, but I don't think you can just "add writers' groups" without their being parties to the suit and bearing part of the expense. This is a legal action, not a series of round-table talks about the future of the book industry.

  6. Michael is SFWA's go-to expert on the Google book debacle. SFWA is lucky to have him.

    Thanks, Michael, for making this post, and giving our readers a cogent explanation of the issues and possible solutions.

    -Ann C. Crispin
    Chair, Writer Beware

  7. Glad I stumbled onto this. It's a little beyond my ken, but encouraging to know that someone more legally astute than I am is minding the store.

  8. I like the suggestion to include a broader base of writers' groups. I have a real problem with the Authors Guild negotiating a settlement that most writers didn't want, as if they could make terms for people who never signed with them. A wider input base wouldn't fix that problem altogether, but it would go a long way towards incorporating the interests of more writers.

Leave a Reply

APRIL 12, 2011

Book Fair Bewares

APRIL 27, 2011

The Interminable Agency Clause