Internet-search giant Google is making conciliatory gestures in an effort to blunt mounting opposition to a copyright deal that is the foundation of its plan to build the biggest online library, Google Books.
In its latest move, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said Thursday during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee that Google would "let other Internet companies sell its digital copies of its out-of-print books" if the settlement wins court approval.
At issue is the right to scan and make available online millions of books, including out-of-print and in-the-public-domain works. Most importantly, Google could digitize the so-called "orphan works" – books that are still copyrighted although the author is dead, the heirs are untraceable, or the publisher no longer exists and no one can find the clear holder of rights to the work.
Companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, but also consumer groups and professional associations, have filed several complaints with the U.S. District Court opposing the settlement reached by Google with the Authors’ Guild and the Association of American Publishers to create the Google Books Registry.
Next month, Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York is set to review the settlement and hear both sides.
The Open Book Alliance, a group created to counter the settlement, released a statement shortly after Google’s concession, describing it as "much ado about nothing."
"It doesn’t address the fundamental problems with the settlement, including the fact that Google would still have sole control over access to the books," it said.
The agreement was the result of a lawsuit brought by authors and publishers in 2005 on Google’s effort to scan millions of library books. Last October, Google proposed paying $125 million for copyright infringements, and its former foes turned into new friends.
Google began digitizing books in 2004. Google has now already digitized more than 10 million books, and the Google Books Search service boasts partnerships with some of the world’s most renowned libraries, such as Harvard, Oxford, the New York Public Library and the Bavarian State Library in Germany.
As part of the $125 million agreement under review, Google would have the right to scan out-of-copyright and out-of-print books, or copyrighted works from cooperating authors and publishers within the United States.
An Open Book Alliance co-founder, Peter Brantley, said that "with Google granted a monopoly to unclaimed works, it would exercise a monopoly over subscriptions for the most comprehensive collection of books available."
The project has generated strong opposition in Europe. Last week, the German Justice Ministry sent its own filing to the U.S. court, stating that the settlement would violate the German copyright law and privacy protections. And there were complaints from the Union of Publishers in Italy and France, which claimed that "150,000 French books that were in American libraries have been digitized without our consent."
In an attempt to thwart the rise of a potential competitor on the online book-selling market, Amazon filed its own brief with the U.S. District Court. A 50-page document was sent, stating that "the proposed settlement should be disapproved because it would restrain competition by creating a cartel of rights-holders and establishing Google as the exclusive distributor of electronic copies of millions of ‘orphan’ books and other works."
Urging the court to reject the Google Books deal, Consumer Watchdog, a consumer group, said last week the proposed settlement conflicts with international copyright treaties such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. It "would strip rights from millions of absent-class members worldwide, for the sole benefit of Google," referring to authors and publishers who did not or could not opt out of the deal between Google and the Guild for the Google Book Search.
Google also said last week that it won’t scan books that are still commercially available in Europe. The Justice Department was expected to file its own brief in the case by Thursday.