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Google grabs rights to digitised books

27 April 2009

Google's recent class action settlement in the US will award sweeping rights to manage and sell digitised versions of every work published or made available in the US. The settlement allows Google - which has already digitised more than seven million books - the non-exclusive right to digitise every book published before 5th January this year. Authors who wish to exclude their books from the settlement must inform Google by 5th May. But opting out of the settlement 'does not exclude your books'. Authors will still have to go after Google to make sure they are removed.

So how on earth have we reached this extraordinary situation where authors may find their books have been digitised without their knowledge or consent, just because copies of them are in US libraries? Google's digitisation programme is nothing new, but just how has it managed to gain the initiative and what should authors do? The first thing is that if you want to opt out, you must do so by 5th May.

It's hard to read this extraordinary legal mess, but opting in may allow rights holders to have some say on the limitations placed on how their works might be accessed. Doing nothing automatically binds works to the settlement. Lynn Chu wrote In the Wall Street Journal that Google's Books Rights Registry is 'a massive burden on everyone in the book industry, making us all, in effect, Google's data-entry slaves'. The Registry, which is being set up following Google's settlement with the Authors Guild and 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, threatens 'to destroy the health in the system that individual bargaining preserves'. She said: 'Say goodbye to your rights, forever, authors, if this mess goes through.'

The current edition of the UK Society of Authors' magazine, The Author, shows how the US settlement affects writers elsewhere, too, if their works are held in the relevant US libraries. It says authors need to act. They should check details at the settlement website, and register titles there; if they want to opt out, they must do so by 5 May 2009. To receive payments, they have to create an account with the Registry by 5 January 2010.

The UK Publishers Association has stressed that UK publishers who fail to respond to the US-based Google Settlement will still be bound by the agreement, but will receive no compensation for those books already digitised by the giant search engine. The PA said that Google could begin rolling out a consumer offer to its US search engine users as early as mid-July, though admitted that the agreement could yet become mired in a lengthy appeals process even after it is approved by a US judge in June.

Under the terms of the settlement agreed between Google and the Association of American Publishers and US Authors' Guild in October last year, Google has agreed to pay $60 per title for 'in print' books it has already digitised with the overall bill expected to be around $45m (out of a total settlement cost to Google of $125m): but it is up to publishers, including UK presses, to make a claim.

There are estimates that there are up to 1m 'in print' titles already digitized out of a total of 7m. Google has refused to provide publishers with a list of titles it has already digitised... the books could have been passed to Google by US libraries or even second-hand booksellers.

Both the UK Publishers' Association and the Association of American Publishers are advising non-US publishers to claim all of their titles, though compensation will only be paid on titles Google has digitised that were registered with the US Copyright OfficeThe US copyright office has information on its website about how to register and what advantages there are in doing so. by 5th January 2009. Even if compensation is not applicable, by registering with Google publishers will gain the right to "manage" how their books are used by the search engine.

Under the terms of the agreement Google's offer could include offering downloads of the full text to consumers and institutions, and selling advertising. Publishers who 'opt in' have the ability to turn off any or all of these revenue generators, and set a price for their books to be sold at by Google, which is otherwise determined by a Google algorithm.