Last week literary and publishing history was made when Google managed to barter a deal with the publishing world, in the form of the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, that will change the whole landscape of access to academic libraries.
Four years ago, Google embarked on a stupendous project to make digital copies of some of the world's largest university library collections and incorporate the texts into its vast web index. The goal was to enable anyone, anywhere, to tap into these huge academic libraries, some with texts dating back centuries.
Google signed up four major universities - Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and the University of Michigan - plus the New York Public Library - as partners in the programme, estimating it would take six years to scan and index more than 10 million books and periodicals. At Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, it agreed to scan only samples (albeit large ones), but at Michigan they did every book and periodical, partly because Google co-founder Larry Page is a graduate, and partly because Michigan has one of the best university collections in the US.
It's a staggering project costing about $10 per volume scanned, and one that was thought to be impractical, until Google embarked on it. 'Going as fast as we can with the traditional means of doing this,' said John Wilkin of the University of Michigan in 2004, 'it would take us about 1,600 years to do all seven million volumes. Google will do it in six years. If we were to do this job ourselves, it would probably cost $600m- that's just the human cost of preparing the material for scanning, packing it up and sending it out to vendors and then quality-control checking of the results. Nothing has been conceived on this scale. It's access to a research collection we never would have dared imagine possible.'
Enter, stage right, US book publishers, many of them incensed by Google's presumptions. Who did these techies think they were, casually scanning and indexing other people's texts? Google responded that (a) copyright holders were protected because when searchers found a book under copyright, they would see only a catalogue-type entry providing basic information about the book and a few sentences of text surrounding the search term, and (b) scanning and indexing constituted 'fair use' under US copyright law.
Pshaw! said the publishers (and the Authors Guild) and called m'learned friends. It would have made an interesting trial and probably have gone all the way to the Supreme Court. But last week the parties reached a deal in which Google will pay $125m to settle the lawsuits, thus clearing the way for it to make millions of out-of-print books available for reading and purchasing online. The deal also outlines a framework for a new system that will channel payments from book sales, advertising revenue and other fees to authors and publishers, with Google taking a cut.
This is a big deal. Of the seven million books Google has scanned so far, between four and five million are still in copyright but out of print. Any arrangement making those easier to access has to be good news. Google can display up to 20 per cent of the text free of charge and make the entire book available online for a fee. The company will take 37 per cent of the resulting revenues, leaving 63 per cent for publishers and authors. (So authors can earn revenues from works their publishers have declined to reprint. Imagine what would have happened to the music business if record labels had negotiated a deal like this.) And if Google sells ads on texts it displays, it will split the revenues on the same basis. It gets all this for $125m, the smallest of small change to a corporation with annual revenues touching $20bn.
The most significant aspect of the deal, though, is that universities, libraries and other organisations will be able to buy subscriptions that make entire collections of those books available to their visitors. Governments could buy national subscriptions for all the public libraries in their jurisdictions. We've taken a giant step towards a world that once seemed an unattainable dream - where everything that has ever been published can be available to anyone who has the desire to read it.
And the downside? Google becomes the conduit for everything in print and pays peanuts for the privilege. Heads it wins, tails it wins.