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So what's the Google Settlement all about?

23 November 2009

You may be thoroughly bored with the Google Settlement (see last week's News Review) but it has a significant impact on authors' rights so it's worth making the effort to understand what it's all about.

Last week's agreement has met with very different responses. Paul Aiken, Executive Director of the Authors' Guild in the States says that:

'The Google Settlement will not give the internet giant a significant hold over the publishing industry, because it has zero market share in books right now, and we don't see that them being able to offer online versions of out of print books will change that in any way.' Aiken said it would increase online competition: 'We think it's a good thing for authors, publishers and readers - and we think their opposition is more about, at least in Amazon's case, protecting their position as the dominant player online.'

The UK Publishers Association also backs the Settlement, although the Booksellers' Association doesn't. PA Chief Executive Simon Juden said that it was 'a difficult and controversial matter with plenty of devil in the detail. As in any negotiation, no side has achieved everything it wanted and there are certainly aspects of the new Settlement that would bear improvement. The deal originated from Google taking actions that we think broke the rules (digitising 10 million "orphan" and out of print works without the rights-holders' permission). I don't think anyone feels comfortable about that.'

The Open Book Alliance, of which Amazon is a member, is still expected to lodge a formal appeal against the revised settlement. A more negative view has been expressed by Gary Reback, its Co-chair: 'The proposed changes fail to address this deal's fundamental flaws. Despite Google's effort to spin this deal, it does nothing to promote competition nor does it reform Google's exclusive access and monopoly hold on this digital database of books'.

So where do things stand? In withdrawing its attempt to make the Settlement effective internationally, Google has dismantled much of the opposition, particularly from Europe. Now books published only in the US, UK, Canada and Australia will be part of Google Books. The beneficiaries are the authors and publishers, known as the 'rights-holders' of out-of-print and 'orphan' books. Google defines a book that is 'not commercially available' as being out of print, ie, if you can't buy it online, or if it's not stocked in traditional booksellers. An orphan work is an out-of-print work where normal copyright laws apply, but whose rights owner is unknown.

Authors stand to gain at least $60 (£36), if their book has been scanned, is out of print and they choose not to opt out of the system. After that, they will get revenues from any sales of their works on Google Books. These are books which were previously not generating any revenue. About two thirds of proceeds will go to copyright owners, while Google will receive about a third.

Unless, you say otherwise, you're presumed to have opted into the project. With that comes the loss of rights. You can't sue Google for copyright infringement, and many lawyers think that that makes the deal questionable, if not illegal. Also, it gives Google extraordinary power. From having zero market share in publishing, suddenly they stock ten million books, seven million of which you're not likely to find anywhere else. Which makes you realise why Amazon in particular, with its near- monopoly of the online book business, is not at all comfortable with the deal.