Google’s Corporate Orphanage

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25 April 2009

So I’m trying to get my head around the hullabaloo surrounding Google’s move to digitize and make publicly accessible out-of-print books.  These books — whose authors and copyright holders have “abandoned” them — are referred to as “orphan” books.

I’m no copyright expert… but I can see of course the potential here for illegality and why the protectors-of-copyright and the trust-busters have their knickers in a twist.   But on a less technical level, from the plain-old perspective of writers and readers and educators and consumers, it seems, you know, reasonable and good.  For someone — Google — to get these books off the dusty shelves and back into the public square.  It seems a pretty fruitful convergence of capitalism and public good.

Of course, Google stands to make a lot of money off of this.  And if Google has exclusive guardianship over the orphan works, they will be the only ones to make money off of this.  It’s pretty straightforward survival-of-the-fittest stuff: they got there first. 

As far as the profit structure goes, here’s what seems to be the crux of it:

Google will be allowed to show readers in the United States as much as 20 percent of most copyrighted books, and will sell access to the entire collection to universities and other institutions. Public libraries will get free access to the full texts for their patrons at one computer, and individuals will be able to buy online access to particular books.  Proceeds from the program, including advertising revenue from Google’s book search service, will be split; Google will take 37 percent, and authors and publishers will share the rest.

Google projects that the parents of many of these orphans will surface and claim their rights — and thus get their portion of the 63% share.  To me, this seems the big question — how much will Google profit off of absent parents (writers)?  Will it be reasonably easy for an author to come forth and claim his orphaned baby?  (Google will establish a Book Rights Registry to administer rights.)

Click here for more on the subject.

(If I’m getting this all wrong, and you know more about this than I do, please enlighten.)

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One Response to “Google’s Corporate Orphanage”

  1. Eric Hellman Says:

    Sonya,

    The settlement agreement is a daunting document, but the answer to your question at least is not impossible to figure out. The unclaimed portion of the 63% (after an excrow period) will be divided among registered rightsholders (for subscription revenue) and to charitable organizations (for non-subscription revenue).

    For a discussion on this see http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-google-settlement-and-unanswered-questions-particularly-about-the-windfall/comment-page-1

    Eric


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