Google Books ruling based on copyright and antitrust concerns

google books settlement

Google's project to digitize all the world's books was set back legally but the judge left open a window to eventual approval. Image: CC styler*/Flickr

Google’s ambitious plan to digitize the world’s books was derailed by a New York federal judge. A $125 million settlement reached between Google and groups representing authors and publishers was rejected, mainly because of copyright and antitrust issues raised by Google’s rivals. Authors and publishers, which have become allies of Google in the case, said the Google Books ruling made it clear as to what changes must be made to eventually get the settlement approved.

The Google Books settlement

Google Books is an effort to scan every book ever published and make them available to anyone with an Internet connection. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google in 2005 over its book-scanning project. In 2008, Google agreed to pay $125 million up front and provide the means for authors and publishers to get paid any time their books are viewed online. The settlement has been mired in the legal system as opponents such as Amazon, Microsoft, the Justice Department, copyright experts and some foreign governments argued against it. On Tuesday, Manhattan federal court judge Denny Chin said the Google Books settlement would solidify the company’s search monopoly and give it the right to exploit published works without the permission of copyright holders.

The orphan works problem

Judge Chin’s main objection to Google Books was a provision in the Google Books settlement allowing the company to digitize any book unless the author and publisher specifically opt out of the agreement. Chin suggested that changing the provision to “opt in” could open the door to approval. The opt-out provision was written because of an issue with so-called “orphan works.” Orphan works are books for which the copyright holders are unknown or can’t be found. According to Google, requiring an opt in leaves millions of orphan works out of Google Books, out of print and unavailable — exactly the problem Google Books was created to solve. Opponents of the settlement said the availability of orphan works is a problem best addressed by Congress, not the settlement of a private lawsuit.

Antitrust concerns

Google defends its book-scanning project as an effort to “democratize knowledge” by offering every book ever written, which is about 130 million and counting, according to the company. But the settlement’s opponents also raise antitrust concerns, saying no other company is capable of building a library that can compete, freeing Google to gouge customers for access. Other critics of Google Books said offering exclusive access to millions of books would put Google in an unassailable position in Internet search. As the battle goes on, Google has scanned about 15 million books. Books with expired copyrights can be accessed via Google’s Book Search, as well as about 20 percent of copyrighted titles Google has licensed from publishers. Sample text can be accessed from copyrighted titles that haven’t been licensed to Google.


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