The Elephantine Google Books Settlement

Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA, Vol. 58, p. 497, 2011

NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/10 #40

24 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2010 Last revised: 27 Oct 2012

Date Written: December 5, 2011


The genius - some would say the evil genius - of the proposed Google Books settlement was the way it fuses legal categories. The settlement raised important class action, copyright, and antitrust issues, among others. But just as an elephant is not merely a trunk plus legs plus a tail, the settlement was more than the sum of the individual issues it raised. These “issues” were really just different ways of describing a single, overriding issue of law and policy - a new way to concentrate an intellectual property industry.

In this essay, I argue for the critical importance of seeing the settlement all at once, rather than as a list of independent legal issues. After a brief overview of the settlement and its history (Part I), I describe some of the more significant issues raised by objectors to the settlement, focusing on the trio of class action, copyright, and antitrust law (Part II). The settlement’s proponents responded with colorable defenses to every one of these objections. My point in this Part is not to enter these important debates on one side or the other, but rather to show that the hunt to characterize the settlement has ranged far and wide across the legal landscape.

Truly pinning down the settlement, however, requires tracing the connections between these different legal areas. I argue (Part III) that the central truth of the settlement is that it used an opt-out class action to bind copyright owners (including the owners of orphan works) to future uses of their books by a single defendant. This statement fuses class action, copyright, and antitrust concerns, as well as a few others. It shows that the settlement was, at heart, a vast concentration of power in Google’s hands, for good or for ill. The settlement was a classcopytrustliphant, and we must strive to see it all at once, in its entirety, in all its majestic and terrifying glory.

Keywords: Google, Google Books Settlement, Class Action, Copyright, Antitrust

JEL Classification: K00, K21

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James and Grimmelmann, James, The Elephantine Google Books Settlement (December 5, 2011). Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA, Vol. 58, p. 497, 2011, NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/10 #40, Available at SSRN:

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Tech ( email )

2 West Loop Road
New York, NY 10044
United States

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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