From io9 on the Future of Reading due to Google Books

If you care about the future of books, you need to understand the Google Book Settlement. It’s a complicated legal document, but we’ve talked to some of its architects, detractors, and defenders – and break it all down for you.

The Google Book Settlement could easily be the twenty-first century’s most important shift in how we deal with copyright in the world of publishing. To understand it, you need a little back story on the previous giant shift in copyright law, which happened about twelve years ago.

Mickey Mouse Protection Act

In 1998, copyright was turned on its head by a piece of legislation often called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” Known to policy-makers as the Copyright Extension Act, it was the result of intensive lobbying by the entertainment industry, led in part by Disney, to extend the copyright on any work created after 1923. Many of Disney’s classic pieces of content, like Mickey Mouse cartoons, were about to pass into the public domain. So the company was naturally interested in keeping control of the Mouse as long as it could.

The Copyright Term Extension Act was good for authors’ estates, and for corporations. Under the new rules, copyright would become life of the author plus 70 years – and for works of corporate authorship, 120 years after creation. (Previously, copyright had been life of the author plus 50 years, with 75 years for corporate works.)

The Act also gave birth to a loosely-organized but powerful movement of copyright reformists. Led by activists, scientists, artists, and tech nerds, this movement has stretched from university campuses to the Supreme Court of the United States, where law professor Lawrence Lessig argued that the Copyright Extension Act was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment (SCOTUS didn’t buy it). Over the past decade, many of these reformists migrated to jobs in Silicon Valley, where easily-copied digital media are constantly forcing the question of what copyright really means in the information age.

One might say that the Google Book Settlement (GBS) is the result of this migration. One of the basic injunctions of copyright reform is “share your culture,” and the seeds of the GBS come from an admirable Google project aimed at sharing the knowledge from research liaries with the world.

Many years ago the search company began digitizing the books from several university liaries, pulling every single book from the shelves and making a digital copy. The idea was to make hard-to-access texts available to anyone, not just people lucky enough to live near a major research school. Via Google Book Search, people would be able to search for keywords in the full text of any book, then read one or two-sentence “snippet” excerpts from it. The Mickey Mouse Protection Act may have stalled the growth of the public domain, but the company’s Google Book Search project would oaden it.

The Settlement

The Google Book Search project was conceived as an online liary, its texts fully searchable, and open to all. Unfortunately, when you digitize everything in a liary, a lot of books are swept up in the frenzy. Among the rare and out-of-print works Google digitized were millions of copyrighted works. When publishers and authors of those works got wind of Google’s project, some of them sued for infringement. They didn’t want any parts of their books available online for free – they wanted people to pay for them.

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