If you think about it, a universal bookstore is a pretty cool idea. Bookstores are wonderful things. Anyone can walk into bookstore, take a book off a shelf, read in it, decide whether to buy it or forget about it, or get it from the library. The settlement announced today by Google, the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild will in time make it possible for millions of books, currently out of print and in-copyright, to be perused, searched and purchased (or not) in an electronic bookstore that will be operated by Google.

The books will come from a number of academic libraries, including the University of Michigan, the University of California, and Stanford University, which have been participants Google Book Search from the beginning, These three worked with Google during the settlement negotiations in an effort to shape the settlement to serve the interests of research libraries and the public, as discussed in a joint press release.

The settlement is complicated, and as people work through it I expect a lively set of discussions and I invite comment on this blog and elsewhere. I’d like to start with what I see as a couple of key points.

First, and foremost, the settlement continues to allow the libraries to retain control of digital copies of works that Google has scanned in connection with the digitization projects. We continue to be responsible for our own collections. Moreover, we will be able to make research uses of our own collections. The huge investments that universities have made in their libraries over a century and more will continue to benefit those universities and the academy more broadly.

Second, the settlement provides a mechanism that will make these collections widely available. Many, including me, would have been delighted if the outcome of the lawsuit had been a ringing affirmation of the fair use rights that Google had asserted as a defense. (My inexpert opinion is that Google’s position would and should have prevailed.) But even a win for Google would have left the libraries unable to have full use of their digitized collections of in-copyright materials on behalf of their own campuses or the broader public. We would have been able, perhaps, to show snippets, as Google has being doing, but it would have been a plain violation of copyright law to allow our users full access to the digitized texts. Making the digitized collections broadly usable would have required negotiations with rightsholders, in some cases book by book, and publisher by publisher. I’m confident that we would have gotten there in time, serving the interests of all parties. But “in time” would surely have been many years, and the clock would have started only at the end of a lawsuit that had many years left to run. Moreover, each library would have had to negotiate use rights to its own collection, still leaving us a long way from a collection of digitized collections that we could all share.

The settlement cuts through this morass. As the product develops, academic libraries will be able to license not only their own digitized works but everyone else’s. Michigan’s faculty and students will be able to read Stanford and California’s digitized books, as well as Michigan’s own. I never doubted that we were going to have to pay rightsholders in order to have reading access to digitized copies of works that are in-copyright. Under the settlement, academic libraries will pay, but will do so without having to bear large and repeated transaction costs. (Of course, saving on transaction costs won’t be of much value if the basic price is too high, but I expect that the prices will be reasonable, both because there is helpful language in the settlement and because of my reading of the relevant markets.)

The settlement is not perfect, of course. It is reminiscent, however, of the original promise of the Google Book project: what once looked impossible or impossibly distant now looks possible in a relatively short period of time. Faculty, students, and other readers will be able to browse the collections of the world ‘s great libraries from their desks and from their breakfast tables. That’s pretty cool.