While the Internet has transformed much of the information world, books have been a laggard. Google may change that. It has already scanned millions of out-of-print books, and it has reached an agreement with writers and publishers — which still requires judicial approval — to make them widely available.
Google’s book service raises monopoly and privacy concerns. It also holds great promise for increasing access to knowledge. Much of the information in the world’s books is not widely available. When Google began scanning out-of-print books held by major libraries its goal was to create an enormous database that Internet users could access from local libraries or homes.
Google fumbled, however, by scanning copyrighted works without the rights holders’ permission. Writers and publishers sued, and the parties have now reached a settlement. A federal court in New York has scheduled a hearing this fall on the settlement, which could be hotly contested.
Google’s effort could create new interest in millions of out-of-print books, which would be made available at no cost at public libraries. That means that a student at a community college or a freelance writer could access the same books as a Harvard professor.
At a time when publishing’s economic model is threatened, there is also an important financial upside for authors and publishers. Google would charge users for accessing copyrighted books from their own computers and sell online ads, and it would give writers and publishers 63 percent of the revenue. The settlement would create a books rights registry to distribute payments.
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