Book industry learns from where the music industry got it wrong

The way has been cleared for millions of out-of-print books to appear on the internet with the news that Google has come to a $125 million settlement in two copyright lawsuits brought against it over its plans to scan books and make them available.

Google has already scanned around 7 million books, of which 4-5 million are out of print, and this deal clears the way for their full content to be made available via the Google Book Search tool. Currently the tool lets you search the full content of the book, but you can then only read a limited extract online unless the book is an out-of-copyright book from one of the libraries Google has partnered with.

The plan for the future is that the full content of in-copyright but out-of-print books will be available for purchase, with the revenue being split between Google and publishers/authors. For in-copyright and in-print books, the deal will see easy options for people to buy the book.

This deal only covers the US, though is likely to expand to cover more countries over time.

It is interesting to see how, albeit via the medium of lawsuits, the book publishing industry seems to be reaching an outcome that still gives it control over its products (and they can opt out of Google’s services) whilst also using the power of the internet to make them more widely available and to generate revenue. While the music industry fell well behind the curve, the book industry – with the advantage that books are hardly to copy round than songs are – seems to be riding it successfully and exploiting the opportunities that internet services offer rather than fighting them.

The wider availability of book content may also see a shift in the subtle, but real, bias in the sources of information used for online content.

Take a look through entries on Wikipedia, for example. Even when there are widely available, respected and authoritative books on a topic, they are only rarely used as references because there is such a strong culture of using information that is available online. This is not just a matter of much content being written by people who are at home at a computer, without the relevant books to hand, but also the resulting way in which evidence that comes with a URL is often given a higher value than evidence that isn’t on the internet.

A similar effect is notable on political blogs in the UK. Go into a library to look up British electoral information and you will find an impressive and useful range of reference works by FWS Craig. His information and statistics are frequently used in other books, but online his valuable information is barely mentioned – because it is locked away offline in either out of print or very expensive books.

With the growth of Google’s book content, all that could change.

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