How Will Google Restructure Books Settlement?


Google gained more opposition to its contentious Google Books digitization project Friday, as the U.S. Justice Department urged a district court to reject a proposed settlement between Google and authors' rights holders in its present form.

But the real takeaway might be the positives in the Justice Department's response: going out of its way to praise certain aspects of Google's book digitization efforts and suggest ways in which the settlement might be fairer. Google is likely to take many of those concerns to heart if it attempts to restructure the settlement before the next hearing, on Oct. 7.

Although Google did not confirm it was working to restructure the settlement -- it merely stated it would review the Justice Department's recommendations -- sources suggested to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations that negotiations are proceeding.

Google's book scanning project landed it in hot water with the Authors Guild and other publishing associations, with whom it settled in October 2008 to avoid a prolonged lawsuit for alleged copyright violation.

The settlement -- $125 million from Google to the groups so that Google could continue scanning public domain, out-of-print and 'orphan books' whose rights holders couldn't be located -- came under investigation by the Justice Department. A number of high-profile observers, including technology and publishing titans like Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo, have since piled on to the list of objectors.

Most of the objections center on the amount of control Google would have over digital copies of out-of-print books still under copyright, with some state attorneys general expressing concern that Google is overstepping its bounds by attempting to represent rights holders that can't be located.

Nearly a year since the original settlement, the U.S. Justice Department finally weighed in Friday in a 32-page filing, urging the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York to reject the settlement in its current form.

"As a threshold matter, the central difficulty that the Proposed Settlement seeks to overcome -- the inaccessibility of many works due to the lack of clarity about copyright ownership and copyright status -- is a matter of public, not merely private, concern," the Justice Department wrote. "A global disposition of the rights to millions of copyrighted works is typically the kind of policy change implemented through legislation, not through a private judicial settlement."

The Justice Department did point out the societal benefits of a digital books library, though, especially in how it would improve access to knowledge. Google pointed out as much in its own response Friday.

"The Department of Justice's filing recognizes the value the settlement can provide by unlocking access to millions of books in the U.S.," said Google in a statement. "We are considering the points raised by the Department and look forward to addressing them as the court proceedings continue."

The next hearing in U.S. District Court is scheduled for Oct. 7, with observers hoping a restructured settlement will emerge before then.