Back in 2005, the Author's Guild (which I had quit by that time) launched a lawsuit against Google Print, the predecessor of Google Books. After three years, a settlement was reached last week that will allow Google to start making the content of millions of out-of-print books scanned from participating library collections available as ebooks for a fee. The fee will be shared with presenting rights holders, as will any ad revenue from those pages. The ad revenue will likely be a bigger source of income for both Google and publishers than ebook sales.
The primary concession from Google's side to achieve the settlement appears to be that they will cease to display snippets of in-print books in search results without permission from the rights holder. I'm not sure what argument was made on why the snippets shouldn't qualify as "editorial usage", perhaps because they were variable, produced on the fly in accordance with a query phrase. In my estimation, this settlement was a big win for Google, and does not represent a strengthening of intellectual property rights, as some in the publishing industry seem to be claiming.
But that's OK, because the mainstream players in the publishing industry never grokked the Google program any more than then they understood how the Internet is changing the publishing landscape under their feet. The snippets they are so proud of eliminating for in-print books could only have helped readers find those book and increased sales. I wrote about this in a blog post back in 2005 that Google blurbed on their publisher page:
Books can be loosely divided into three categories: in-print, out-of-print but in-copyright, and out-of-copyright. The snippet issue relates to in-print books. The out-of-copyright books were never an issue, though determining whether or not books are out-of-copyright can get tricky. Out-of-print books aren't making money for publisher or authors, but somebody, either the publisher, the author, or the legal heirs of either, still owns the rights if they are in-copyright. Google's initial argument was that Google shouldn't have to make an effort to find those rights holders, because it was likely to be difficult in many cases. At the time I didn't think that was a very reasonable legal argument. Three years later it makes a great deal of sense to me, though I think they could have described their position a little better at the time. It's not that it would have been difficult to find the original rights holders for many out-of-copyright books, it would have been nearly impossible, and involved legal proceedings to determine rightful heirs in many cases. That burden would have resulted in those books being lost to the public, who could otherwise access them as ebooks. If Google was a Hollywood studio making a multi-million dollar movie based on an out-of-print but in-copyright book, it would be a different story.
All but one of my self published titles are in the Google Books program. I kept one out as a "control group" so I could have a subject for an analytical blog post one day. As soon as Google introduced the option to list those titles for sales as ebooks, I signed up, and have been waiting, year after year, for that part of the program to become operational. I'm hoping that it's been on hold all this time due to the lawsuit, and that they'll be adding "Buy it now" buttons as soon as the legal niceties are completed. But I'm also holding out hope that ebooks aren't the end of the road for the Google Books program.
What I'd like to see Google do is to sign up with some major print-on-demand vendors, such as Lightning Source and Amazon, and make all of the out-of-print books available as POD. These printed books, with simplified covers and other quality limitations, would still have an impact on used book sellers, but as somebody who once paid a used book dealer over $100 for a book on acid paper that was falling apart because it wasn't available elsewhere, my sympathies lie with the readers in this case. I don't think it would be a huge business. Most of the ebook action will probably be in nonfiction, where people are looking for reference information that's contained in a few pages and can be printed or be read from a computer screen, and they won't normally be willing to pay for a bound copy. But I may be too old a dog to make the transition to reading literature on a Kindle, Sony Reader or a computer screen. And then there's the Sabbath.
My two basic rules in life are that I don't work on computers on the Sabbath and I don't read novels that are in-copyright. The latter is a question of taste, not a legal position. Coincidentally, this past weekend I finished reading Scott's forty eight volume Waverly Novel collection, and discovered to my great chagrin that there was a glossary of Scottish terms at the end of the 48th volume! I'm fortunate to live in the home town of Smith College, which claims to have the largest college (not university) library in the US. But even in a library as good as Smith's, older books, which crumble when read or which are simply vanish from the collection, often go unreplaced. I can tell by the occasional uncut page in the Waverly Novels and the relative lack of circulation date stamps that the lesser known works haven't been in high demand the last 100 years or so.
As a reader, rather than a book collector or fetishist, I prefer reading books where I don't have to be careful about breaking the pages as I turn them. And since I stay off the computer on the Sabbath, it's often a big reading day for me. My staying off the computer isn't based on Orthodox observance of the Jewish law that prohibits making a fire (which the rabbis have interpreted in modern times as many new prohibitions, including throwing an electrical switch), but on my treating the computer as a beast of burden that deserves a day of rest. That way, I get the day off as well. But would I use a Kindle or another ebook reading device on the Sabbath for recreational reading?
First of all, I think it would be relatively easy to write the program to create a Shabbos Kindle. It would have to turn itself on at a preset time, Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, and proceed to flip through a book at a preset speed. It would probably make it more kosher if the buttons were disabled during the Sabbath to prevent accidental work. Orthodox Jews have long accepted Shabbos timers (clocks that turn lights off and on automatically) and even Shabbos elevators, which run a preset schedule for the entire Sabbath, stopping at every floor. So I'm relatively confident that a Shabbos ebook reader is not far away, and may even have a religious purpose if used in large print mode for religious texts that aren't otherwise accessible to people with limited eyesight.
But I think that it's a case where the intention of the law is more important to me than the letter of the law, and I'd be inclined not to use a Sabbath Kindle as being too close to making my beast of burden work when I'm resting.