Google Book Search settlement and access to out of print books

A few weeks ago we blogged about how the Google Book Search settlement agreement will expand access to books for readers in the United States. We recently took another important step forward, when the University of Michigan announced an expanded agreement with Google that will take advantage of the settlement to expand public access to millions of works from the University's collection.

Today we want to explain one area of the settlement in more detail: how the agreement increases access to out-of-print books, including books that some refer to as "orphans."

Out of Print Books

The settlement covers books that Google scans from libraries’ collections, the majority of which may be in copyright but are out of print. These books would ordinarily be hard to access, and one of the principal benefits of the settlement agreement is that it allows people to search, preview, and purchase access to them.

The settlement will also make it far easier for anyone -- including Google's competitors -- to license the use of most out-of-print books. As authors and rightsholders claim their books under the settlement, information about what books have been claimed and who claimed them will be made publicly available, allowing others to take advantage of this information. What's more, the settlement creates an independent, not-for-profit Book Rights Registry run by authors and publishers that will be able to license other services on behalf of rightsholders who want it to do so.

Today, it may be costly for someone to track down the rightsholders of many older works, and there's not much reason for those rightsholders to make themselves easy to find, because they can't earn any money from their work by selling it in stores.

The settlement agreement addresses this conundrum in concrete ways. Because out-of-print books will get a renewed commercial life through Book Search and other services licensed by the Registry, rightsholders are more likely to claim their books. In this way, the settlement creates real financial incentives for owners of out-of-print works to come forward.

In addition, one of the Registry's core missions is to locate the owners of unclaimed books in order to help authors and publishers claim their works and the revenues due them under the settlement. There is an extremely broad notification program already underway.

Orphan Works

While the majority of all book titles are out-of-print, only a minority of them are what some people call “orphans.” This term isn’t defined in U.S. law and people disagree on the definition, but it typically refers to in-copyright works whose owners cannot be identified or found.

As “parent” rightsholders claim their books through the Book Rights Registry, we think it will become clear that most out-of-print books are not actually “orphans.” Books that were once difficult for anyone to license will become books that are very easy for everyone to license, either through the Book Rights Registry or directly from their owners. Furthermore, many books that some think are in-copyright orphans (including a large percentage from 1963 or before) are actually out-of-copyright, and Google is working to make more information available that can clarify their copyright status.

Of course, some rightsholders may still be too difficult to find. Under the settlement Google will be able to open up access to truly orphaned books, but we still think more needs to be done to allow anyone and everyone to use these works. Any company or organization that wants to open up access to this untapped resource should be able to do so. The settlement is not a panacea, since it only covers a subset of orphaned works, provides only certain uses, and is not able to extend these uses to other providers. The need for comprehensive orphan works legislation is not diminished.

That's why Google has been working for years to pursue legislation to provide meaningful avenues for any entity to use orphaned works. We first explained our views to the Copyright Office on this subject over four years ago, and it will remain one of Google's priorities to work to pass effective orphan works legislation.

Fortunately, there isn't an either-or choice between legislation and the settlement. While we work with others towards a comprehensive orphan works solution, the settlement agreement takes one important step towards opening up access to orphaned books in the meantime. If the agreement is approved, anyone across the nation -- from a school child in rural America to a blind PhD candidate -- will have an easy way to go online and read books that would otherwise be hard to access. We are excited about making that possible.