Google's digitization of books

A backgrounder on Google's project to digitize all the world's books.
Google's book digitizing project impacts readers, writers and the book publishing industry. ((Carsten Koall/Getty Images) )

The Google Books settlement with U.S. writers and publishers, now scheduled for release Nov. 13, is the result of a four-year tussle over the question of whether the company has the right to digitize millions of books, both those in print and those out of print.

Google began its digitizing project in 2005, going to several major university libraries and digitizing every book it found there. The company said its aim is to increase the amount of knowledge available online. But the Authors Guild of America accused the company of "massive copyright infringement" and began a class-action lawsuit against it. Publishers later joined in. That class action has resulted in Google displaying only snippets of books not yet in the public domain.


2004: Google announces it has agreements with major U.S. university libraries to digitize their books.

September 2005: Authors Guild in the United States launches a class-action suit.

October 2005: Five large U. S. publishers sue Google over copyright infringement.

October 2008: The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers settle with Google.

June 11, 2009: A U.S. court begins reviewing the settlement agreement to see if it is fair.

Sept. 4, 2009: Authors whose books have been digitized by May 2009 had until this date to opt out of the settlement.

Nov. 13, 2009: Court to finalize settlement agreement.

June 5, 2010: Deadline for authors to apply for payment through the Books Rights Registry.

A $125-million US settlement was announced in 2008 but was dragged back to court in June of this year amid accusations that it was unfair, following an antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Although the deal is being worked out in a U.S. court, it will apply to everyone connected to the publishing business around the world.

Under the terms of the settlement, Google will have the right to digitize any book published up to Jan. 5, 2009, and available for sale in the U.S. This includes almost all Canadian books in print, as virtually all books published in Canada are available in the U.S.

For readers, it could mean access to millions of books, including some long out of print, on the internet. The most likely subscribers to the Google service would be public, school or university libraries. Individual readers would also have the option to buy books — at prices ranging from $1.99 to $29.99 US.

The intention is to have a searchable database with millions of titles. Consumers will be able to download and print books in a PDF format. They will also be able to read them online or on devices such as iPhones and digital readers. Google Editions, an online service that will let readers buy electronic versions of books, was launched this October.

Concerns for readers

The main issue for readers is privacy. Because you are searching and reading on a public network, there is little assurance that your browsing and reading habits are private. Here are some of the questions raised by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

  • Are your reading habits safe from fishing expeditions by the government or lawyers in civil cases?
  • How will Google itself use information about your reading history?
  • How will Google combine information about your reading habits with other information it may have about you through its other products?

Issues for authors

The service presents enormous opportunities, by putting a diverse array of books into the hands of a huge volume of readers. Some authors are welcoming the prospect that people around the world will have access to their work. But both writers and publishers have concerns about compensation and how their works might be used.

Google has agreed to pay $60 US per title for in-print books it has already digitized. There is potential for additional compensation from books sold through the online service and ads posted alongside any Google book. The company has pledged a total pot of $45 million, but authors have to apply to get their money. If they ignore the issue, or are unaware of the Google Books settlement, they get nothing.

The sheer size and scope of the Google deal is a concern for many players, from authors and publishers to governments and potential competitors. Google's deal states that the company has a right to digitize any book, unless it is explicitly withheld. So any author who does not want his or her book included in the deal had to opt out by May of this year.

Similarly, authors and publishers who want to be compensated for the digitizing of their book have to register with the Book Rights Registry, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization created expressly for the purpose of administering copyright fees for Google Books. If authors don't register, no one will be making efforts to track them down.

For "orphan" works — those for which the copyright holder is unknown or cannot be found — Google stands to claim all the proceeds of offering them to the public. It has an effective legal monopoly on these works, which is of concern to the company's potential competitors.

Public domain

In the U.S., books become public domain 70 years after the death of the author. But international rules for when works come into public domain vary by country, with different regimes for Britain, Australia, the European Union and Canada, whose copyright act is currently under review.

The U.S. Copyright Office, the European Union, Germany, France, five U.S. attorneys general, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon are among those who have opposed the deal. Google agreed to appoint EU members to its Book Rights Registry, which would usurp the role played by national copyright organizations. Even Chinese writers groups have come forward to object.

Many of the international aspects of the deal are still to be worked out. Google has said it plans to use geo-blocking technology to prevent access to books in other countries until agreements are reached there.


Susan Noakes

Former senior writer and editor

Susan Noakes was a senior writer and news editor with CBC News. She spent five years at newspapers in Hong Kong and has worked for the Toronto Star and Asian Wall Street Journal. At CBC, she has covered arts, science and business.