You are a non-fiction reader; I am (primarily) a non-fiction author. Ah, and I have an academic background too, since you make an issue of this. And being very specific is meat and drink to me.
To begin at the beginning: in 2005 a US authors’ organisation, the Authors’ Guild, and a group of publishers backed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), separately began litigation against Google alleging that its digitization of in-copyright works for its index without the permission of the rights-holders was an infringement of copyright. But instead of testing this matter out in the courts, the parties jointly agreed on a settlement. Together they drafted a class action settlement agreement which
a) defines as members of the class almost every author, publisher, author’s heir or other copyright-holder anywhere in the world: now, bear in mind that some authors in the US are still finding out what is happening, and many rights-holders throughout the world not only have not the least idea about it all, they can’t even read the (very complicated) settlement agreement, which only exists in English;
b) binds all these copyright-holders, unless they opt out once and for all by a specific date (and remember, many of them don’t even know this is happening), in what amounts to a perpetual non-negotiable contract with Google under which Google can digitize any work of theirs published in book form before 5 January this year; moreover, in the case of any of those works that in Google’s opinion is not ‘commercially available’ in the US, the company is permitted to exploit it commercially within the US in a number of important ways, including running ads alongside it, giving away or selling online access to it, and potentially including selling copies outright in pdf or POD form.
If the copyright-holders sign up with a new Book Rights Registry controlled by Google and a handful of big commercial publishers some money might come their way eventually. However, they will have no audit rights.
Although in the case of most works published before, say, 1995, and many published after that date, the electronic/digital rights definitely belong to the author, not the publisher, in those cases where the publisher still has a licence for the print rights the settlement agreement splits the payments for Google’s use of those works between author and publisher, instead of paying it to the author, as the owner of the relevant rights.
If an author’s works are published in single-author books (as opposed to multi-author anthologies or collections) and if they are the sole owner of the rights to those books they can instruct Google, through the Book Rights Registry, to withdraw their work from sale; but under the settlement agreement as it stood in its first incarnation (it is now being revised), a poet or a short story writer or an essayist who has published work in the past in multi-author collections would be compelled to see that work offered for sale by Google whether they wanted this or not.
If a copyright holder were for any reason dissatisfied with the actions of Google or the Book Rights Registry, or if there were a dispute between an author and a publisher about the ownership of a copyright, the settlement agreement would prevent their having access to the courts: instead they would have to take their dispute to an arbitrator. The pool of arbitrators would be chosen by Google and the Book Rights Registry. Arbitrators would not be bound by previous decisions.
Under the settlement agreement, if an author has a dispute with a publisher: had a work published without their consent or knowledge, for instance, or without receiving the promised payment (both these things have happened to me in the past) they would lose their right to take the publisher to court or otherwise challenge the publisher’s actions.
In short, it is what any sensible person must consider a bad contract, coldbrew, especially for authors. And it is not being freely entered into: instead, an attempt is being made to impose it on copyright-holders (including copyright-holders who don’t even know about it) in a manner that would not be legal outside the mechanism of the class action settlement - and may not be legal in any event. Many well-informed people think it isn’t.
So, I disapprove of what is happening, coldbrew. Nor do I think it is for what you call ‘the greater good’. I think what would better serve ‘the greater good’ would be ‘a vibrant marketplace for the electronic distribution of copyrighted works’. (I quote from the statement of interest regarding the Google Book Settlement sent to the court by the US Department of Justice [p. 1].) Note that word ‘marketplace’. The Google Book Settlement agreement (version 1) is not a recipe for a marketplace. It’s a single-buyer arrangement, imposed by the coercive force of what, if it is truly law (which I doubt), is bad law. It’s a scheme that might well kill the market in electronic books, and at the very least would badly damage it.
Why do I think a marketplace is important? Because it is only in a market, with competing buyers and a diversity of outlets, that authors - creators - can hope to achieve reasonable remuneration for their work. And if you starve your authors of pay most of them will have to stop work. It takes a lot of resources to write a book: resources of time (which in some shape or form means money), and especially in the case of much non-fiction, research resources (which again come at a cost).
I think that any benefits that might conceivably be obtained through the Google Book Settlement would be outweighed by this appalling likelihood: that it would kill or greatly weaken a living culture of professional writing in the long forms (novels, biographies, full-length works of history, and so on). I do not believe that that would serve ‘the greater good’.
As a final note, I would also point out that it is only in a market that there is a major incentive for publishers to improve their products and offer competing services. Google’s scans of print pages, or its epub versions, which reputedly take the form of raw, or near raw, OCR output, are plainly not the last word in high-class e-books. Yet if other publishers are squeezed out there is a serious risk they may be all, or nearly all, we get.