Google Editions: Reviewing Google’s Cloud Vision for Books

It’s been almost two years since Google announced the “landmark settlement” that would give it the legal freedom to expand the possibilities of what it could do with books online. Now, in 2010, it seems like Google is starting to receive accolades for its oft-proclaimed visions for the future of the book – at least from some entities in the publishing industry. Reports emerging from Frankfurt Book Fair 2010 seem to indicate that Google’s vision for the future of books is now being met with eagerness and a reinforcing support from publishing professionals.
Commenting on Google’s presence at the fair, Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly (7 October 2010) presented very concise reportage of the ebb and flow that has hereto marked Google’s entrance into the e-book fray, including a mention of Roland Reuss‘ outburst in 2009 that Google was “fetishizing access”.
Let’s (re)consider the historic Google Book Search settlement that could be interpreted as a foundational stage for Google’s later developments in relation to digital books.
The Google Book Search Settlement
It took two years of negotiations (prior to 2008) for a “copyright accord” to be established between Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers. On 28 October 2008, Google announced a settlement which effectively resolved a class action brought by the Authors Guild against Google and a further lawsuit against Google filed by certain members of the Association of American publishers (McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., Pearson Education, Inc., Penguin Group (USA) Inc., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Simon & Schuster, Inc.). The two lawsuits sought to “challenge Google’s plan to digitise, search and show snippets of in-copyright books and to share digital copies with libraries without the explicit permission of the copyright owner”. Keep in mind these lawsuits were filled in 2005.
The initial settlement in 2008 sought to provide:
More access to to out-of-print books, including allowing readers in the U.S. to search and preview them online;
Additional avenues by which copyrighted books could be purchased
A means for U.S. colleges to obtain institutional subscriptions to books online enabling access to world renowned libraries;
Free full-text access to out of print books by certain computers in U.S. libraries; and
Distribution of payments “earned from online access provided by Google and, prospectively, from similar programs that may be established by other providers, through a newly created independent, not-for-profit- Book Rights Registry”.
Five years later and lot has changed, not just in the status of Google Book Search, but in the status and stature of e-books and the sale of these products by major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. While the legal underpinning of Google Books are still being ironed out, with the Court granting preliminary approval of an amended settlement agreement on 19 November 2009, there appears to be a little less to iron out (at present), in terms of the technological infrastructure of Google Editions. The program will allow consumers to view books via their browser as they currently do with Google Books; however, in addition to this, they will have the option to purchase a Google version of the book, a Google Edition. The difference between Google Edition e-books and other e-books currently for sale is that rather then being stored on the consumer’s hard drive, Google Editions will use cloud-based technology. That is, they will be stored on an “online bookshelf, available to be accessed and read on most devices with internet access and a web browser”. The Google Editions start up page already provides information for rightsholders about how to take part in the Google Edition program.
Albanese notes that while Google’s book proposals originally attracted some scepticism, the pivotal factor which has changed the tide of professional opinion has been time. He also credits “Google’s cloud-based vision … would seem to move toward the e-book world a step closer to a device-agnostic market that could sweep in an even broader number of customers”. Could it be an inevitable conclusion, that just as Google’s self-titled search engine fundamentally changed – and continues to change – the way we use the internet, so too could Google’s particular take on e-books? Google has had a strong-hold in the e-book “market” before there was a market to speak of. The e-book market is now a thriving hub of activity and innovation. While the Google Book Search settlement reveals just a small snap shot of Google’s vision for digital books, it nonetheless delineates what I perceive to be a turning point which propelled Google on a trajectory which may make it the cornerstone of the e-book industry.