I use Google a lot, both for searches and for research on Civil War topics. Google book search is now an immense and impressive repository of 19th Century books, including a great many on military matters. I’ve found some very scarce regimentals as well as many books on rifles. The other big advantage of the Google system is that the the books are indexed so that it’s possible to search across literally thousands of books for a name or term. Since many of these older books were either not indexed or not done very well, this is a huge asset in research.
Still, there are problems. Google indexes not only old books on which the copyright has expired, but new ones as well, and this worries a lot of people. Eric Wittenberg, for example, has been vocal in his opposition to this sort of universal scanning. Since Google has become a big player like Microsoft, it is worrisome to wonder what they’ll do with all that knowledge. Big players are hard to catch if they cheat and violate your copyrights, and even harder to bring to justice if they do.
In any case there’s just been a major development in the case—Google has settled with a group of author and now the way seems clear for it to proceed.
Google agreed to pay $125 million to settle lawsuits by authors and publishers who sued to stop the company from digitizing out-of-print – but copyright – material. Under Book Search, it has already scanned some 7 million books and estimates there are 20 million more that would qualify, BusinessWeek reports.
A finding against Google could have subjected them to significant infringement penalties – $700 to as much as $150,000 per book, according to Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman copyright attorney Cydney A. Tune. “If you look at the number of copyrighted works that were involved in the case and multiplied it by the number of statutory damages for each work,” said Tune, “that’s a huge amount of potential damages.”
But, more to the point, a court ruling against Google would have had a chilling effect on a program whose purpose is not to make any money per se but to preserve the knowledge in libraries the world over, and make it more widely available.
At present, only Google has the will – and probably the wherewithal – to tilt at such a windmill. Only Microsoft has attempted anything similar – and it abandoned its Live Search Books initiative earlier this year.
With the incentive of being paid something, authors and publishers now have little reason to fundamentally oppose the project few probably did anyway on principle alone.
But by creating a market (and now by settling) Google has provided a bit of a windfall for the content holders, whose out-of-print works were not likely to get back into “print” any other way, with the establishment of a new non-profit Book Rights Registry to manage royalties.
Read the whole thing if you’re affected by this, and also take a look at the comments.
UPDATE: Knowledge is power, and Google has lots of both. However, those who have power don’t always use it wisely or responsibly . This article sums up the uneasiness a lot of us have about Google.