Page last updated at 17:53 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 18:53 UK

Turning the page on Google books

Open book, SPL
Google's plan to digitise books has generated a lot of debate

Bill Thompson talks to Google to find out more about its intentions for the proposed book search system.

After my criticism of the proposed Google Book Search settlement was published on the BBC News website Google offered the opportunity to talk about my concerns with Santiago de la Mora, the company's director of book partnerships in Europe.

We talked extensively about the rationale behind Book Search, the detail of the settlement and my worries over its possible adverse impact on other digitisation projects.

It is clear that for those within Google who are developing Book Search the goal is to enhance user choice and build the market for books, not simply driving more traffic and generating more advertising revenue for Google itself.

Throughout our conversation Mr de la Mora was adamant that enabling people to find books online will benefit readers, authors and publishers.

He pointed out that the overall goal of Google Book Search is to "help users to connect and find content that has been very difficult to find, languishing on bookshelves", and that it already has thousands of publishers and libraries as partners.

He sees the proposed settlement as being "about a new market for books that can be found online", one that will work by letting users search, offering them a preview, and then letting them buy. He also told me that the scope of the project is enormous, offering "an opportunity to have every book with a US copyright imprint brought back to life".

The result, he told me, will be more choice for everyone. In the first instance "users will have more books to choose from and that can only increase user satisfaction", but authors and rights holders will also have the choice of whether to have their books indexed and sold.

Different models

With regard to the Book Rights Registry, the independent body that will be set up with funds from Google to supervise the process of identifying and rewarding rights holders, Google's view is that its freedom to digitise orphan works without penalty will provide "an incentive to authors and publishers to claim and monetise their work", but Mr de la Mora was also careful to point out that "in the end the decision rests with the copyright holder", and Google will respect their decisions.

One of my main worries is that the current settlement will stop other initiatives, making Google the world's librarian. The Book Rights Registry is able to make deals with other organisations, so that other projects could be started, although there is no indication yet that this will happen.

Text, BBC

However, Mr de la Mora also pointed out that the settlement "is the fruit of a US legal process, so outside of the US such initiatives could very well appear through the partner programme of Google, where we have ongoing relationships with publishers and copyright holders".

He also noted that "people have to be aware of very profound differences in copyright law, so you can't just transpose this project to other countries".

This is a good point, and it was reassuring to hear that Google is not simply planning to export the US settlement to the rest of the world and present it as the only model. Whether other initiatives will actually emerge is of course unknowable, but at least the possibility exists.

One issue that Mr de la Mora was unable to address was the question of why, if Google is so committed to ensuring openness and diversity, it did not support the attempt by other digitisation projects to benefit from the settlement.

In April this year the Open Access Trust and the Internet Archive applied to the US courts to join the settlement but this application was rejected by Judge Denny Chin and only Google is included in the agreement with the Author's Guild and the American Association of Publishers.

As I noted in my original piece, the issue that concerns me is not about Google digitising the world's books, but about only Google doing so.

After my conversation with Mr de la Mora I was reassured of the company's good intent, but still not convinced that the proposed settlement will deliver the many benefits Google claims it offers. It will be interesting to see if the US court agrees on 7 October.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific