Does digitize mean democratize? 

How Google’s class action settlement will affect Canadian authors

By Karen Herland

What if all these books were a click away? Magnifying glass

What if all these books were a click away?

Imagine having over seven million books just a mouse click away.

As a researcher, you could go to this digital library, search, evaluate and print the material. As a published scholar, think of all the people who would have access to your work, even after it was out of print or if it had limited distribution.

“From the point of view of a researcher, why wouldn’t you be part of a project to digitize material and make it available?” asks Jocelyn Godolphin, Assistant Director of the Libraries’ Collection Services. “And you get compensated. Never mind whether you get revenue or not, your book is exposed, which may be important to getting your scholarship known.”

By now, many people have heard about the class action settlement Google has negotiated with various representatives of publishers and authors in the U.S. Although the final decision will only be rendered in June, the facts of the case are straightforward. In 2004, Google began digitizing books on the shelves of libraries including both Harvard and Oxford. The next year, a class action suit was launched on behalf of copyright holders (publishers and authors).

Godolphin points out that although Google might have defended its actions under U.S. fair use legislation, it opted to settle for $125 million.

Within that settlement are provisions to establish a $34.5 million Book Rights Registry to defend rights holders. Another $45 million is available for claims holders, compensating them whenever anyone prints, downloads or otherwise accesses the material beyond the complicated limitations outlined in the hefty 134-page settlement plus an additional 15 appendices.

Quite simply, that means every U.S. copyright holder can register at (excluding photographs or books that were not under U.S. copyright as of Jan. 5, 2009) and fill out a claim form. The settlement urges all authors to assume they have U.S. copyright. Theoretically, if the settlement is reached later this year, 63% of all the revenues earned from certain commercial uses, such as subscriptions, online purchases, advertising and per-page printing, goes to the copyright owners. Google gets the rest.

And, therein lies the rub: Google did this first, Google has the resources to do it right. Unless individuals deliberately opt out of the class action settlement to retain their own rights, “Google will have the monopoly on digital rights, and, in the end, it’s a commercial entity,” says Godolphin.

A New York Review of Books article last month used the example of the pricing of academic journals, pointing out that initially libraries could offer a wealth of specialized research to members through subscriptions. And, as researchers depended on that material, and libraries expanded their collections, publishers realized they had a captive clientele, and began to ratchet up their prices.

Many libraries have reduced their monograph budget from 50 to 25% in an effort to maintain their journal collections. That trend is reflected in Concordia’s library acquisitions records for the last two decades or so. A similar scenario could happen with a Google monopoly on digitized book collections.

Although the settlement provides for American libraries to have at least one free dedicated terminal, since this is a U.S. settlement, “Canadian libraries will have to subscribe in order to provide access,” adds Godolphin.


Concordia University