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The Google-publishers-authors settlement: What will it mean?

October 29, 2008 | 12:52 pm

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On Tuesday, publishers, authors and Google announced they had reached an agreement in their dispute over the digitization of books in copyright. There will be a payment from Google, a new book rights registry, increased access to scanned books, particularly through colleges and public libraries, and full print-on-demand available -- after approval by a U.S. District Court.

Google will pay $125 million, $45.5 million of which is lawyer's fees. Of the remaining funds, the Authors Guild will get more than half -- $45 million -- to settle its 2005 lawsuit to stop Google from scanning books that were still under copyright. Google's position was that by displaying only a few lines of text at a time, their actions were "fair use"; under the new agreement, the parties can agree to disagree, because copyright holders will be paid.

There will be an initial payment and later profit sharing. On the Authors Guild website, Roy Blount Jr. writes:

There’ll be at least $45 million for authors and publishers whose in-copyright books and other copyrighted texts have been scanned without permission.  If your book was scanned and you own all the rights, you’ll get a small share of this, at least $60, depending on how many rightsholders file claims.

Which raises some questions: How many authors "own all the rights" to their work? How many still share the rights with publishers? Don't the rights shift, depending on time and sales, according to different contracts? Well, there are provisions for keeping track of such pesky details.   

$34.5 million will go to set up a new books rights registry. It'll track who owns what, who should be paid for what, whose work is being accessed and/or printed, and make further payments based on usage and access.

Is this good or bad? Some thoughts after the jump.

First: Yes, it's good. Publishers needed to figure out a way to share and distribute their books electronically. This agreement moves the industry forward into the inevitable world of digitization, and it presents a coherent plan for trying to get both authors and publishers paid in the process. (Avoiding the mistakes of the music industry, which thought it could bully new technologies out of existence. Oops.)

But: What do these payments boil down to, really? No author is going to survive off one $60 per-book payment -- even the mega-prolific Joyce Carol Oates, if she owns all her rights, would walk away with a little less than $7,000. That's nice, but it's not a living. And hopes for later monetization may be a little high (more on this below).

And: The centralized book rights registry is a good and smart thing. But since it will be developed with only the initial payment from Google, and later supported by subscriptions and usage fees, if the payments are inadequate, the registry will collapse. Maybe it's just me, but it grates that the lawyers involved will be getting more cash than the yet-unborn entity that's assigned to move the entire publishing industry forward into the 21st century.

So, about the money. The details get awfully complicated (and there are still many to be worked out) but basically, two new sources of funding will be available to support the registry: institutional subscriptions and individual purchases. Colleges, universities and other institutions will pay for all-access subscriptions, as they do for journals and other services today. So students and professors will be able to see anything for free, but if they want to print, there will be a fee (students will probably skip printing, type what they need and move on, judging by my recent experience in graduate school).

Individuals who use Google Book Search -- who will be able to see larger excerpts of copyrighted work there than they do now -- will be able to pay a fee to access the entire work online (and pay another fee for print-on-demand). The cost of viewing an entire book electronically will either be decided by a Google algorithm "designed to maximize revenues for the book" (and algorithms are what have made Google what it is today), or set independently by the rightsholder. It's clear that this agreement tries to walk the line between open access and paying people for their work; Library Journal says, "what began as a blueprint for a universal digital library has become a universal digital bookstore — and maybe that’s not all bad."

On the Assn. of American Publishers site, the money question is addressed directly in a Q&A about the agreement:

Revenues earned from subscriptions, consumer online purchase, advertising on web pages for specific books (including snippets or preview pages devoted to a single book), and from per-page printing at Public Access Service terminals will be divided between the rightsholder and Google at a 63-37 split respectively.  Google will pay those revenues to the Book Rights Registry, and the Book Rights Registry will pay registered rightsholders their earnings after administrative costs. 

This is where I'd love to see some estimates, because I'm having a hard time understanding how these payments -- which are good in principle -- will generate much cash. Another part of the Q&A mentions that Google will pay some Public Access printing fees, specifying "for the first 5 years or up to $3 million, whichever comes first." That sounds to me like the estimates aren't all that high -- you know, something like $600,000 per year, meaning about $400,000 per year to the registry, which has to both support itself and then make its "use payments" (which the signatories to the agreement prefer over "royalties") out to publishers and authors. If there are more than 150,000 new books each year in the U.S., and thousands of existing books in copyright that would be in the system, I can't figure out how publishers and authors could expect to get more than a few dollars a year, at least from this revenue stream.

There are other sources of revenue. Maybe the institutional subscriptions will be huge. Google ads could be enormous. Maybe personal usage fees -- those generated outside the free terminals -- are expected to be significant. Or maybe revenues are projected to balloon after the five-year mark. As good as getting paid sounds in theory, I hope it works, for publishers and authors both.

Other questions: Google will provide some full-access terminals at public libraries for free, but is it incentivizing multiple terminals as a paid service? If publishers opt out of the entire service, will they be protecting their intellectual property, or making a grave mistake? Will this kind of electronic book replace previous ebooks? Will the Google process of scanning and keywording existing bound books (which makes them look nice and bookish on the screen, with visible page textures and the occasional slightly sideways scan) be used for new books, or will they get digital files from publishers? And if that happens, will the electronic versions begin to look less like books and more like text on a screen, changing the way books are designed? Will small presses have a voice in the shaping of the registry, or will it be dominated by corporate players? And, with Google centralizing and, as they said on the call, "tracking" so much of this information, should we be thinking about privacy -- about who knows what about what we read?

If you know the answer to any of these questions, please drop me a line at jacketcopyla@gmail.com. Oh, and if you're an author who may be owed $60 for work that's already been digitized, here's the place to find out about getting it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of old-style books in the N.Y. Public LIbrary by timetrax23 via Flickr

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