Google’s book scanning faces scrutiny

A proposed settlement among Google Inc., the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers over Google’s extensive book-scanning project faces growing scrutiny–and new fears that the deal could give Google too much power over future access to digital texts.

The Justice Department is reviewing whether Google’s settlement violates antitrust laws, and several library groups, authors, and campus researchers have filed a series of concerns with the federal judge overseeing the settlement.

Under the Google Print Library Project, snippets from millions of out-of-print but copyright-protected books have been indexed online by the University of Michigan and other libraries. Google has called the project, which also scans public-domain works, an invaluable chance for books to receive increased exposure.

But in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2005, the Authors Guild alleged that Google was "engaging in massive copyright infringement." Within weeks, publishers also sued.

Last October, Google and the publishing industry agreed to settle their battle. The settlement calls for Google to pay $125 million while developing online sales opportunities for scanned books that turn up in Google searches. Google would get 37 percent of future revenue, and publishers and authors would share the rest.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google also would pay for the millions of copyrighted books already scanned–$60 per complete work to the rights holder–and for the legal fees of the Authors Guild and the publishing association.

In November, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin set a June 2009 date for a final hearing to decide if the deal was fair, reasonable, and adequate. Chin also set a deadline of May 5 for authors to opt out of the deal and review its potential pitfalls.

In late April, however, a group of authors that included John Steinbeck’s son and daughter-in-law, musician Arlo Guthrie, and university professors from around the country persuaded Chin to delay approval of the settlement.

"It is clear to us that the settlement, if approved, will shape the future of reading, research, writing, and publication practices for decades to come," Pamela Samuelson, co-director for the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, wrote in a letter to Chin.

Chin ended up granting a four-month reprieve, rescheduling a hearing on the fairness of the settlement from June 11 to Oct. 7. Authors now have until Sept. 4 to review the agreement and opt out.

The latest concerns about the proposed settlement came May 4, when the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries filed a legal brief urging the court to exercise "rigorous oversight" of the deal.

The groups said they don’t oppose court approval of the settlement outright. However, they’re concerned that Google would not safeguard readers’ privacy and that the company would be the only digital source for many books and major academic journals.

The library groups also are worried that a subscription to Google Books might become indispensable to universities and that subscription rates could soar in the future.

"The cost of creating such a library and Google’s significant lead-time advantage suggest that no other entity will create a competing digital library for the foreseeable future," the groups noted. "To mitigate the possible negative effects the settlement [might] have on libraries and the public at large, [we] request that this court vigorously exercise its jurisdiction over the [deal’s] implementation."

Google said in a statement that it was "proud to partner with dozens of libraries around the world as part of our book-search efforts."

"We have consistently maintained that, if approved by the court, our settlement agreement stands to unlock access to millions of books for users in the U.S.," according to Google’s statement.


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