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Google settles copyright suit

3 November 2008

A ground-breaking agreement was reached in New York this week in the case of the Authors' Guild and the Association of American PublishersThe national trade association of the American book publishing industry; AAP has more than 300 members, including most of the major commercial publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and non-profit publishers, university presses and scholarly societies v Google. Google will make payments totalling $125m. Whilst recognising the entitlement of rights holders, the agreement will allow for the expansion of online access to millions of in-copyright books from the libraries taking part in Google Book Search.

This issue has been controversial for some time. Google's plans to make in copyright books available was challenged because of suspicions about the company's ultimate aims and anxiety about protecting copyright and the right of authors to license their work.

Mark le Fanu, General Secretary of the Society of Authors in the UK, said: 'The decision recognises that authors and publishers must have control... It's a compromise for Google but a major breakthrough for authors.'

This has been an issue for two years, ever since Google announced its intention of scanning in copyright books, as well as those out of copyright, from the libraries it has been working with. The Authors' Guild described their plans at the time as 'a massive copyright infringement' and sued Google, with five publishers doing the same in a separate suit. The case has now been settled out of court, with Google in effect recognising that it cannot ride roughshod over authors' copyright.

The compensation Google has agreed to pay includes $45m to authors and publishers whose books have already been digitised without approval and $34.5m to establish a new copyright registry, to which it will pay 63% of revenue derived from an author's work. The new Book Rights Registry in the US will locate rights holders and collect the money, rather as ALCS and CLA already do in the UK. Google will now be able to provide access to out of print books, whilst the authors of these books will benefit from them being made available.

For the Internet giant it is a good outcome and will enable it to pursue its aim: 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.' With 60% of worldwide Internet searches and 86% of total UK searches, Google had a market value of $140 billion (a September figure). The company already makes about $20 billion a year from online advertising. This deal may seem expensive, but for Google it's a drop in the ocean compared to the opportunities it unlocks.

And for writers? They can all breath a sigh of relief that a solution has been found which acknowledges and protects their rights.