The Google Book Settlement: Are you in or out?

by Mary W. Walters

Whether you live in the U.S.A. or not, if you published any book before January 5, 2009, you may be affected by the Google Settlement, which is a directive by the courts to Google to pay a very modest fee to writers/publishers for books that Google scanned from major U.S. libraries and intends to make available on-line. (This is a vast over-simplification. I hope that people who come to participate in this discussion will have apprised themselves of the relevant issues before making comments. I’ll probably need to revise this post several times before I get the wording right, but I want to get it posted. Here is the actual Google Book Settlement site.)

Writers and publishers owning copyright to these books have the option to ‘opt out’ of the settlement by September 4, 2009 — which means that they won’t receive the pittance of money that Google is paying to acknowledge its indebtedness to the people who created the original books that they have scanned. If you opt in, however, you give up your right to argue about the issue in the courts in future (in relation to the books in question).

I am not going to put down an explanation of the Google Settlement here. It is available in lots of places (you can Google it!!!) but as the writer of a few books that may be affected, I am waffling about whether to opt in or out. The opting in (which requires no action on our part. I know. I know!) has the advantage of making us and our book(s) part of a huge system of electronic data that is going to be available whether we’re part of it or not (being part of that, as opposed to not being part of that, appeals to me a lot) and leaving the door open for future payments by other users who get permission from Google (I know, I know!) to use our stuff. Opting out means retaining rights to intellectual property. Retaining intellectual property rights is a huge issue, and has always been very important to me, but while it’s a great principle, so far it is not producing much actual income in my case. I have reached a point where I see my earlier books as resources that will make people want to read my future books — over which I am not giving up control — and for that reason, I’m inclined to make my earlier books accessible.

This is very much related to what musicians and filmmakers are going through, but it is also totally different. We need to talk about it together. Please link to places where we can do that, or talk about it here.

If you are affected by this Settlement, tell us what you’ve decided. As writers, we have to think about this and make our own decisions — not be swayed by Google, the publishers, or our writers’ groups. We must be personally accountable to our own work.

7 responses

  1. I checked this out awhile back and discovered that it’s not up to me to opt in or out. My publisher owns all the rights to my books. So it’s up to them to decide if they want to do anything or not. At least that’s what I understand from reading my contract(s).

    • Yes. It’s the copyright owner that is involved in this settlement. Many presses who pay writers on contract to write books retain the copyright for themselves. So do many academic presses, unless another arrangement is made. With creative works, the author normally retains copyright, and the publisher owns the right to publish (etc) for a certain defined period of time. I gather in the case of the Google Settlement, in regard to some books BOTH the publisher and writer are involved in the settlement. I’m not clear on that yet.

  2. The accepted wisdom seems to be that writers should stay in. Not really sure what the basis of this wisdom is, since we don’t know what the deal for writers is going to be. I believe that if your book was published before January 2009 you will recieve a first time payment of $60. After that, it is unclear what percentage (if any) the writer gets whenever his/her work is reproduced.

    My understanding (imperfect as it is) is that once you opt out it does not necessarily mean that Google will not take your work off its list. So if they end up making it available you will have to take them on yourself.

    As on the X-files, the truth is out there, but making sense of it is a crap shoot. As for me, I’m staying in for the time being.

    • I think books for which copyright holders will be eligible to receive payment not only had to be published before Jan ’09, they also had to be scanned by Google before early May ’09. There is a list on the Google Settlement website of books that are eligible because they have been scanned. There’s also a deadline by which you need to complete a claim form if you ARE on the list in order to receive the payment: January 5, 2010.

      • Mary,
        There are two aspects to payment under the settlement. First whether the books were scanned prior to May 5, 2009. If the settlement is approved and the rightsholder(s) remain in it, and if your book was scanned, then the rightsholder will get a one-time payment of $60US per book, provided said rightsholder files a claim by January 5, 2010.

        Second, if the settlement is approved and the rightsholders remain, Google can continue to scan the books covered by the settlement and sell electronic access to those books. Google will pay those rightsholders 63% of revenue received from these uses, again provided requisite forms are submitted.

        The reason I have this stuff at my fingertips is that I wrote an article about it for the Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter. As a result of many requests, I’ve posted the article on the web. It can be downloaded at

        What have I decided? I remain firmly on the fence. I have a couple of books (and editions) covered by the settlement and several so-called “inserts” in books. I agree with many about this being a massive rights grab; but it’s also an opportunity for people to easily find your work, and for you to get at least some money for the electronic use.

        The problem with sitting on the fence, is that you rear-end gets sore from the sharp points.

  3. According to an email I got from Access copyright, you are absolutely correct about that May 9, 2009 deadline. The book I just had published this month was on the Google list way back in February. It’s hard not to feel Google is this unstoppable juggernaut sucking up everything in its path, so you better get on board or you’re doomed to become information highway roadkill. Resistance is futile and all that rot.

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