John Naughton in The Observer, Sunday 6 September 2009
The scale of the project is vast: it's been called "Google's moonshot". The company now has digital copies of more than five million books and is adding thousands more every month. And it embarked on this project without seeking anyone's permission, for that is the Google Way. Not surprisingly, many authors and publishers were enraged and in 2005 some filed legal suits which were consolidated into a "class action".
Google claimed protection under the "fair use" provisions of US copyright law. The social value of making available millions of otherwise-inaccessible books outweighed the damage to (often untraceable) owners of the intellectual property (IP) rights. But the litigating publishers and authors were not impressed, and the stage was set for a legal death march all the way to the supreme court.
Then in October 2008, Google and its adversaries astonished the world by filing a settlement for Judge Chin to approve. This would release Google from liability for copyright infringement for all its past and future scanning and searching. In return, the company would pay $125m (£75m). Google would share ad revenues resulting from the display of texts with authors and publishers, and a non-profit digital rights registry would be set up to collect payments and distribute them to rights owners. With Judge Chin's acquiesence, Google would be home and dry.
As a commercial deal, it takes one's breath away. Effectively it gives one company a stranglehold on mankind's literary heritage. "If the settlement is approved," writes Professor James Grimmelmann of New York Law School in his commentary on the case, "Google will have the closest thing to a universal library that the world has ever seen." And all for $125m, which is two days' revenue for it. That is to say, peanuts. It makes Bill Gates's acquisition of the rights to what became the MS-DOS operating system look like butterfly collecting.