Ultimately, the settlement failed because it was too ambitious. Yes, Judge Denny Chin didn’t like a variety of things about the way Google executed the project, but in the end that was secondary. This was just too big for a class-action settlement. The settlement created a books registry and arranged specific revenue splits; it created methods for dealing with “orphan works,” a longstanding copyright problem that, as Chin noted, should be dealt with by Congress. All those things go far beyond simply ending a dispute. The proposed settlement was without precedent in its scope. The settlement had the potential to change the way we all interact with books—to actually change human culture. A class-action settlement just wasn’t the right tool for that serious work. Even for strong supporters of the Google Books project, it’s hard to argue with that logic.
“Basically he’s saying, this is a big deal for copyright law, and a big deal for the U.S. internationally,” said James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School who has studied the settlement extensively. “In light of those things, it’s better for Congress to set this policy, than for me, a judge hearing a case between private parties.”