An author's guide to the Google Books flap

Librarians and academics have weighed in on the Google Books settlement, but what do authors need to know before Friday's deadline to opt out?

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
6 min read
If they don't opt out of Google's settlement with book publishers and authors by Friday, authors will have to make decisions about how to display their content in Google Book Search. Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

The issues surrounding Google's Book Search settlement are among the most complex surrounding the company this year: what do authors need to know about their rights and responsibilities?

Google has scanned over 10 million books since 2004 in participation with libraries and publishers in hopes of creating a unique digital library and storefront, and if its pending settlement with books rights holders is approved next month at a hearing, Google will be able to make a far greater portion of those works available through its search engine. Friday is the deadline for authors to decide if they want to participate in the settlement.

The settlement has drawn attention and criticism from groups such as library ethicists and academics for the way it concentrates control of this potentially wondrous public good in the hands of a for-profit company. The Department of Justice is also taking a look at the settlement, which has the potential to throw a large roadblock ahead of the project.

Authors, however, have a few choices to make as they ponder Friday's deadline. Here's a sampling of what they need to know:

Why does Google have a copy of my book?
Google entered into book-scanning projects with several publishers and universities around 2003 with the goal of transforming dusty old books into searchable sources of data. Google believed it was within its rights under fair-use laws to scan books that were out-of-print but still protected by copyright law so as long as it only presented a snippet of each book within Google Search. In cases where Google has cut deals with publishers, it's allowed to show a much broader portion of the book if the rights holder gives consent.

The Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers disagreed with Google's interpretation of copyright laws, and filed a class-action lawsuit in 2005. The parties settled in October with an agreement that could give Google the right to display books it has already scanned in a variety of ways depending on the status of the book and the wishes of rights holders.

How do I know if I'm affected by this settlement?
If you've written a book since 1923 that was published in the U.S., you're probably eligible if you hold the copyright license (some "for-hire" authors cede this to publishers, such as with multi-author technical manuals and the like). Check with your publisher to be sure, but note the settlement only covers books published on or before January 5, 2009.

If your book is still in print, Google has had to ask you or your publisher for explicit permission to scan and display your book. Several publishers have cut deals with Google to display and distribute books. Check with your publisher to see if you're a member of the Partner Program and how your work is displayed.

If your book is out-of-print, it's a little trickier. As a result of the settlement Google has to offer you the opportunity to decide how, or if, you'd like that book displayed in Google Books, as well as whether you want to claim compensation for Google's digitization of your works as a member of the class.

What do I get if I participate in the settlement?
If you fill out a claim form at the Web site set up to administer the settlement, you'll get $60 per work that Google has already digitized as well as options as to how that work will be displayed in Google Book Search. Claims for the cash payments must be submitted by January 5, 2010.

You're also entitled to 63 percent of both the revenue that Google makes from the sale of your book through Google Books, as well as 63 percent of the ad revenue linked to that book. That revenue can be claimed at any time, and will be held by the Books Rights Registry set up as part of the settlement to distribute payments to authors until it is claimed.

What if I don't want Google to display my entire book?
You have several choices under the settlement regarding how Google is allowed to display your book. You can ask Google to display the whole thing and charge for online access to the book, ask Google to display just a preview copy with links to bookstores where it can be found, have just a few snippets included, or exclude your books entirely from Google Book Search.

If you participate in the settlement, you've also authorized Google to use your book for non-display purposes that include internal testing and bibliographic information unless you specifically request otherwise when you claim your payout.

Books that do not get claimed by their rights holders will have 20 percent of their pages displayed as a preview.

I can't believe anybody would pay money for that old book I wrote, but why not? How do I sign up?
You can claim your books here. You must claim the books by January 5, 2010 if you want the $60 per book, but you'll be automatically included in the settlement class unless you opt out by Friday.

Do I get to set the price for my book?
You have two choices: you can set your own price or allow Google to set the price using one of its famous algorithms to figure out where your book will make the most revenue.

I don't want anything to do with this settlement. How do I tell Google?
If you wish to completely opt out of the settlement, you have to let Google know by Friday here. Opting out of the settlement allows you to sue Google for digitizing your out-of-print book. You can also ask Google to avoid scanning your book if it already hasn't (at least until April 5, 2011) as well as remove any instances of your book from Google Book Search.

Why should I keep my book in Google Books?
The project has the potential to dramatically reinvent the concept of what it means to be a book. Books that are searchable and that can link to one another could pay enormous dividends for researchers, who will get access to the catalog of books as part of the settlement.

It could also mean a little bit of money in your pocket and extend the life of an older book that is gathering dust on a library shelf.

Is Google the only place that's going to offer this kind of service?
No one really knows, but nobody else is scanning books on this scale, and few are believed to have the financial resources to attempt such a project.

Google's rights under the settlement are nonexclusive, in that anyone can negotiate for scanning and display rights with the nonprofit Books Rights Registry. But no one has stepped forward as of yet, and there's only a handful of tech companies with the cash resources and business models (Microsoft? Yahoo? Apple? Amazon?) that would allow them to consider such a project: Microsoft has scaled back its book-scanning efforts in recent years.

What happens if the settlement is rejected?
Who knows. Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will review all the filings in support or objection to the settlement following Friday's deadline, and oversee a final hearing in October to determine the fate of the settlement. The Justice Department is also reviewing the settlement for possible "anticompetitive practices."

It seems pretty obvious that if the settlement is thrown out, rights holders won't be bound by the terms of the settlement. What seems likeliest is that the Authors Guild and other groups will renegotiate a settlement on different terms, but the issue could conceivably wind up back in court, delaying the project indefinitely while Google continues to scan books.