Technological innovations have created a dramatic increase in the demand for electronically available books, or e-books. The process of making these books accessible to the masses has created a flurry of legal activity, specifically over the digitization, or copying and scanning of books, by companies such as Google. In fact, Google’s digitization of many American books that were still under copyright resulted in a class-action lawsuit against Google by the Author’s Guild, an organization dedicated to protecting the copyrights of member authors and publishers.
These copyright concerns will only continue as Google expands its e-book business to other countries. However, it seems that Google has modified its expansion model as the company recently entered into a settlement agreement with The French Publishers Association and the Société des Gens de Lettres. These authors groups alleged that Google’s digitization of books violated French copyright law. To prevent a potentially costly lawsuit, Google entered into a 6-year settlement agreement with French publishers and authors that will allow Google to digitize out-of-print French works, but permit the publishers to retain control over the commercial use of books.
The agreement reached between French publishers and Google is quite different from that being offered to American publishers. The French settlement creates a publishing framework that allows publishers to either opt into the scanning or withhold their work from digitization. This provision is an especially important one as Google continues its legal battles in the U.S., as its proposed settlement agreement with American publishers was vetoed by the Court because of its opt-out instead of opt-in framework. It is possible that the success of the French settlement may be indicative of Google’s plans to offer a similar agreement to American publishers and remove one of the greater obstacles to the expansion of Google’s digital library.
Not only does the agreement with French publishers represent the successful end to a publishing rights war, but it comes at a time where the e-book market in Europe is beginning to rapidly expand. In many European countries, such as Germany and France, e-books command as little as 1% of the market share. One of the primary reasons that digital book sales are so low in Europe is because of the controversy over copyright issues, such as those that restricted Google digitization in France. As a result of Google’s agreement with French publishers, Google can seek to expand its hold of a nascent, but burgeoning market throughout Europe. France can be seen as a legal testing ground for Google, a chance to create and perfect licensing agreements to set the stage for the company to enter into similar agreements with authors and publishers throughout Europe.
The success with French publishers presents Google with opportunities beyond e-books. Currently, Europe is a battleground beyond devices running IOS and Android operating systems. Now, the two market giants must compete with the newcomer, Amazon. As Amazon prepares to launch its Appstore in Europe, Google must increase its efforts to gain exclusive distributorship agreements with European publishers to ensure that one of the most successful American e-readers/tablets does not replicate its success across the Atlantic. The successful end to Google’s French legal woes may be the spark that the company needs to gain a dominant share of the European e-book market and an edge in the very lucrative e-reader and tablet market as well.
*Cory Howard is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from the George Washington University. Mr. Howard worked for a human rights organization in Washington, D.C. before entering law school. Upon graduation, he intends to practice either international or corporate law.