It's been three years since the lawsuit was filed that launched the Google Books Settlement, a long series of back-and-forth negotiations about the copyright issues surrounding Google's efforts to digitize books in order to make them searchable. The controversy surrounds out-of-print books that are still under copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be found.
There have been anti-trust lawsuits filed by Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft (which abandoned its digitization efforts years ago). The books in question are not only less than one percent of the market, they are of primary interest to academics and researchers. If Google hadn't started this process, the books wouldn't be available at all.
There have been two big changes in the agreement recently:
First, the new agreement excludes all foreign-language books from the database (though books from the English-speaking Britain, Australia, and Canada will still be included). This was a major concession for Google and potentially a big loss for researchers and academics. As Dan Clancey, the engineering director of Google Search says, as quoted in UK's Sunday Times:
Within US libraries it's acknowledged that more than half the titles held are non-English books. This reduces the scope of the settlement by at least 50% and probably more than that.
The exclusion of these works was a response to fears and criticisms from many European countries.
Second, the amount of time a copyright holder has to show up to claim their out-of-print work has been extended from five to 10 years. As Wired points out, more time will be allotted to find the copyright holders of "orphan books," and the unknown authors will receive legal representation:
Under the new proposal, the monies from Google Book activities will be held in wait for a longer time by a rights registry group, and a lawyer will be appointed to negotiate on their behalf. After 10 years, unclaimed funds will be given to charity, not disbursed to copyright holders generally.
Critics are still unsatisfied, however. According to CNET:
"For the millions of volumes of orphan books that Google has already scanned in, they can offer those without risk of anyone coming forward and suing them for infringement," said John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.
The point that these critics, led by Google competitors Amazon, Yahoo, and Microsoft, are missing is that Google Books is, practically speaking, the only way these orphaned, out-of-print works will be made available to the public, which is especially important for research. These other competitors say that they want the opportunity to compete with Google for the orphan works, but the reality is that these books will likely be completely lost if not for Google Books.
And yet, critics rage and opposition continues. Gary Reback, an antitrust lawyer and leader in the Google opposition group Open Book Alliance, is quoted by CNET :
The settlement is a total failure to address most of the problems the Justice Department raised and virtually all the problems raised by U.S. objectors and amicus [friends of the court] briefs.
Google and its supporters insist that the database as it stands under the new agreement will only help the book industry from any perspective. Authors Guild executive director Paul Aikin, quoted in The Bookseller, responds to concerns that the book search could challenge traditional publishers:
Some people are afraid that the settlement gives Google dominance over the book industry, but that is so far from true, since it is about out of print books.
Google has zero market share in books right now, and we don't see that them being able to offer online versions of out of print books will change that in any way.
Richard Sarnoff, president of Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments president of the AAP, and a key architect of the settlement sums it up:
[T]his settlement is not about setting up the digital future of publishing, but reclaiming much of its past, by ensuring that out of print books are discoverable, accessible, browseable--and even commercially available--through Google or third parties.
The amended settlement goes a long way toward accomplishing this goal, at least for English language books.