Old- and new-school reading at a book festival in Hay-on-Wye, England. The woman on the right is using the Sony Reader. ((Matt Cardy/Getty Images) )

The sound and fury over the latest proposed settlement between Google and its book publishing partners and authors is the sound of history being made.

The revised deal was produced this past Friday (Nov. 13), just six minutes before a firm midnight deadline set by Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court in New York. It was meant to answer criticisms of the epic Google Books program.

"Not good enough!" the critics are already saying.

The sound and fury over the latest proposed settlement between Google and its book publishing partners and authors is the sound of history being made.

Now at this point, you might be saying, "What the heck is the Google Books program? And what’s the controversy all about?" You’re forgiven, because the whole thing is not widely understood outside the book trade.

Here’s the background: starting in 2005, a grand network of book-scanning factories was set up by Google and attached to more than two dozen of the world’s great libraries, which had signed on with the program. The central idea was to break down the last barrier towards Google fulfilling its mission statement to "organize all the world’s information" by digitizing paper-based information. The budget for all this was reportedly upwards of a billion dollars.

Initially, criticism of Google Books was relatively muted. The detractors were concentrated in the Open Content Alliance (OCA), which included libraries not part of the Books project (like the one at the University of Toronto), archives and Google’s main commercial rivals, Microsoft and Yahoo. By the spring of 2008, Microsoft appeared to lose interest, and it walked away from the OCA, content to watch its competitor Google spend itself silly digitizing books.

Oops! Bad timing, Microsoft.

Just as Microsoft was saying "Adios!" to the OCA, a little device called the Amazon Kindle started to rocket up the sales charts. Similar book reading devices, like the Sony Reader, were emerging at the same time. It then dawned on Google’s competitors, librarians and governments in Europe and Asia afraid of American cultural hegemony that Google was doing more than just organizing all the world’s information. It was also creating a vast pool of Google-controlled content for the new generation of electronic book readers.

This pleased Google allies like Sony. But competitors like Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon didn’t like the way things were going at all. Their anger only intensified late last year when Google Books gained fresh momentum by announcing a settlement of outstanding copyright issues on book scanning with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors’ Guild of America.

With the full support of Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, the U.S. Department of Justice then intervened on antitrust grounds. The Department of Justice forced Google to go back to court and then back to the bargaining table with authors and publishers to come up with a plan that gave the company less dominance in the world of books. That resulted in the midnight re-do of the original deal this past weekend.


Author Stephen King, a big proponent of e-books, reads from his novel Ur using the Kindle 2 electronic reader. ((Mark Lennihan/Associated Press))

Google is still charging ahead; it’s currently about 10 million books into its mega-scan. But as of Friday night, it’s offering a new compromise to appease its critics. It’s proposing to hand over control of the rights of scanned books to an independent third party, a yet-to-be-created book registry. The registry would have the power to pay authors still covered by copyright and to license Google’s digital scans to other companies, like Amazon and Microsoft.

Under the new arrangement, Google also answers critics in Europe by pledging to back away from scanning French and German books, which are being aggressively scanned by European Community librarians anyway. Instead, Google says it will concentrate on scanning and cataloguing the books of its homeland, the U.S., and books of countries sharing the same literary "tradition" — the U.K., Australia and…Canada.

This deal is still subject to a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Chin, whose decision could be weeks or months into the future. It’s already being slammed by Google’s fuming rivals, who denounced it on the weekend as "sleight of hand," adding that it did not address the "fundamental flaws."

So, what does all this wrangling mean to you? In the short term, not much. But in the medium to long term, this sound and fury could herald historic change. The lawsuits and the fight for market share will continue, but a vast new supply of digitally scanned books grows by the day.

While the makers of electronic e-book readers are slow to serve the Canadian market — with the exception of Sony Canada and its reader — supplies will be plentiful and cheap soon enough. And with plenty of electronic readers and e-books, things will change — forever. It’s just a matter of who will serve this new market and how big a slice of the book trade pie they will control.

About six weeks ago, I sat in a room full of Saskatchewan publishers as a leading industry consultant told them that within five years, half their business would be electronic. A sharp intake of breath followed. Those in the room seemed stunned. But by break time, excited publishers started discussing what the sharp reduction or even elimination in printing costs and storing and shipping of physical books could mean to their bottom line.

I happen to believe the consultant is right. And so do many publishers, tech companies and other stakeholders, explaining all the recent frantic activity around Google Books. Take it from me: the digital book is shaping up to be biggest development in books since the invention of the printing press.

Sean Prpick is network producer for CBC Radio in Saskatchewan, and creator of The Great Library 2.0., a documentary on the Google Books project for the CBC Radio program Ideas.