A trove of out-of-print books that have been mouldering in library stacks for decades is to go on sale in ebook form for the first time, following a legal settlement between Google and a group of book publishers.
After seven years of tortuous legal wrangling and tussles with US regulators, Google will have the right to sell out-of-print books that it has scanned which are still in copyright, provided the publishers agree. The settlement is likely to cover "hundreds of thousands or millions" of the 20m books that Google has scanned so far, said Tom Turvey, who heads the company's digital book efforts.
However, the deal will go only part of the way to achieving Google's once-ambitious plan to scan all the world's books and make them available online. It will also do little to change the balance of power that has left Amazon at the top of the ebook market in the years since Google set off on its quest to leaf through the vaults of the world's leading research universities, according to analysts.
The deal falls short of a plan that would have given Google blanket permission to sell all works still in copyright, including the many for which the rights holders cannot easily be traced. That idea was scrapped after opposition from the US Department of Justice. The search group's grand plan is also still under fire from the Authors Guild in the US, which has its own lawsuit outstanding.
Thursday's agreement will lead to more innovative ways of making old books available while respecting copyright, according to the publishers involved in the suit, which include Pearson Education and Penguin, both of which are owned by Pearson, which is also owner of the Financial Times.
Google will have to give digital copies of its scanned books to publishers and allow them to sell the work via other online stores.
In the years since it first riled the book industry with its audacious plan, the company has struck individual deals with many publishers to sell digital copies of their works in its online Play store, covering current works that represent the bulk of the industry's sales.
"Pretty much anything publishers wanted to have digitised that is current, they've got it by now. Publishers know what's been selling," said one book publisher involved in the settlement. "I think what's left over in these 20m books is largely academic, research and scholarly."
Mr Turvey said that the book market is a "long tail" business in which there is a low level of interest in a vast array of specialised works, making the unearthing of old out-of-print works potentially of interest to many readers.
Google once saw its book-scanning project as a way to put itself ahead in the ebook world, giving it more titles even than Amazon, which styles itself "Earth's biggest bookstore". However, in the past seven years it "certainly hasn't become the player people thought it might become as a seller of content", said the publisher.