Google agrees to a rewrite

Digital book plan concessions made to gain US approval

By Michael Liedtke
Associated Press / November 14, 2009

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SAN FRANCISCO - Google Inc. will loosen its control over millions of copyright-protected books that will be added to its digital library if a federal judge approves a revised legal settlement addressing the earlier objections of antitrust regulators.

The concessions, filed late yesterday in New York federal court, come two months after the Justice Department balked at Google’s original agreement with authors and publishers, warning the arrangement could do more harm than good in the emerging electronic books market.

Google, the Internet’s search leader, is hoping to keep the deal alive with a series of new provisions. Among other things, the modified agreement provides more flexibility to offer discounts on electronics books and promises to make it easier for others to resell access to a digital index of books covered in the settlement.

Copyright holders would have to be given more explicit permission to sell digital book copies if another version is being sold anywhere else in the world.

The changes are just the latest twist in a class-action lawsuit filed against Google four years ago by groups representing the interests of US authors and publishers. The suit alleged Google’s ambition to make digital copies of all the books in the world trampled their intellectual rights.

Google negotiated a $125 million truce nearly 13 months ago only to have it fall apart as critics protested to US District Judge Denny Chin, who must approve the agreement.

Among other complaints, the opposition said the plan would put Google in charge of a literary cartel that could illegally rig the prices of electronic books - a format that is expected to become increasingly popular.

In echoing some of those concerns, the Justice Department advised Chin that the original settlement probably would break laws set up to preserve competition and protect copyright holders, even if they cannot be located.

French and German officials also protested, contending the settlement is so broad that it could infringe on copyrights in their countries.

The revised settlement would apply only to books registered with the US copyright office or published in Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia.

Much of the concern about the settlement has focused on whether it would give Google a monopoly on so-called “orphan works’’ - out-of-print books that are still protected by copyright but whose writers’ whereabouts are unknown.

If the writers or their heirs do not stake a claim to their works, the original settlement called for any money made from the book sales to go into a pool that would be shared among the authors and publishers who had stepped forward to work with Google.

The revised settlement would designate an independent party to oversee the financial interests of the orphan books’ copyright owners. Sales proceeds of orphan books would be held for 10 years, up from five years in the original agreement.

Google has gone into some of the nation’s largest libraries to scan about 6 million out-of-print books. So far it has only been able to show snippets of those digital copies.

A court-approved settlement would clear the way for Google to sell out-of-print books and scan more into its index.

The Justice Department urged Google, authors, and publishers to come up with an alternative plan because it believes the public will benefit by having more books - including millions no longer in print - available to anyone with an Internet connection.