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Is Google Hurting Book Publishers?

Tuesday, 30 Jun 2009 | 2:43 PM ET

Here's the question the publishing industry is trying to figure out: Does it make sense for Googleto have the rights to exploit "orphan" books, those whose copyright holders can't be found. Is it bad if Google has the exclusive rights to those books through its book search initiative?

Kindle 2
Source: Amazon.com
Kindle 2

Now the president of the U.S. arm of Oxford University Press is asking Congress to prevent Google from having the "exclusive" rights to orphan books. Tim Barton is proposing that Congress give others the same rights over these works as Google. The issue at hand is the settlement Google made last fall with publishers, which has been endorsed by the major U.S. publishing associations, though it's being investigated by the Department of Justice and has been criticized by libraries and law professors.

As part of a larger plan to scan books, Google has a deal with publishers to help them sell some current books. The idea to scan books and make them available online is intriguing, and it seems could ultimately help a struggling industry. But the question remains whether it's dangerous to put one company in control of so much information. Google already scanned 7 million books without permission. Will this, along with the Kindle, be the turning point that brings the publishing industry into the 21st century? Or does it represent a wresting of power away from content owners? Documents in the case are due in September.

Every quarter publishing divisions of media conglomerates report grim results. There's Harper Collins at News Corp, Simon & Schuster at CBS, and Random House at Bertelsmann. Amazon'sKindle is helping distribute books in a new digital format, but the revenue stream from this business is still minimal. Bottom line, publishers need all the help they can get. They might think it's worth fighting over the right to "orphan" books; the real question is whether they can negotiate some sort of profitable partnership with Google, without allowing the behemoth to win a power struggle.

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.