Copyright Office Criticizes Google Book Legal Settlement

On Thursday the nation’s top copyright official attacked a controversial legal settlement that would allow Google to create a huge online library and bookstore.

The United States register of copyrights Marybeth Peters, and Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Marybeth Peters, the United States register of copyrights, said the settlement between Google and groups representing authors and publishers amounted to an end-run around copyright law that would wrest control of books from authors and other right holders.

Ms. Peters, the first government official to address the settlement in detail, said it would allow Google to profit from the work of others without prior consent and that it could put “diplomatic stress” on the United States because it affected foreign authors whose rights are protected by international treaties.

But David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, who also testified at the hearing, defended the agreement saying it let authors retain control of their books and would expand access to millions of out-of-print books that are largely hidden in libraries, the New York Times reports.

It was also reported, when the US Copyright Office first heard about the proposed Google Books settlement, it found the idea a "positive development." Then, after reading the fine print, it changed its collective mind, deciding instead that Google was really out to rewrite US copyright law through the courts.

Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyrights, today explained to Congress (PDF) her office's objections to what Google hoped to do: “But as we met with the parties, conversed with lawyers, scholars and other experts, and began to absorb the many terms and conditions of the settlement—a process that took several months due to the length and complexity of the documents—we grew increasingly concerned. We realized that the settlement was not really a settlement at all, in as much as settlements resolve acts that have happened in the past and were at issue in the underlying infringement suits. Instead, the so-called settlement would create mechanisms by which Google could continue to scan with impunity, well into the future, and to our great surprise, create yet additional commercial products without the prior consent of rights holders... Allowing Google to continue to scan millions of books into the future, on a rolling schedule with no deadline, is tantamount to creating a private compulsory license through the judiciary.”

This objection from the top US copyright authority certainly doesn't help Google's chances of legalizing its massive book scanning project. Peters doesn't like the fact that the proposed settlement covers far more than Google's past behavior—it covers all books published before January 5, 2009, whether they have already been scanned or not. In addition to covering past behavior, then, the settlement would allow the company to continue scanning for decades, if that's how long it takes to digitize every volume published before 2009, Ars Technica reports.

In the meantime, the most recent announcement to make its archive available to all booksellers is aimed at addressing the second set of objections, that the settlement creates a Google monopoly.

"We believe strongly in an open and competitive market for digital books," Google said in a statement. "As part of that commitment, today we announced that for the out-of-print books being made available through the Google Books settlement, we will let any book retailer sell access to those books. Google will host the digital books online, and retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore will be able to sell access to users on any Internet-connected device they choose."

The announcement did not appease some critics, who said the proposal still leaves Google in near-complete control of the digital files.

"I fail to see what's really new here," said Peter Brantley, a director at the Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that collects and makes available various publicly available content free of charge. "It's like Macy's telling Sears, 'You can sell Macy's clothing.' There's no fundamental change of the conditions under which Macy's acquires those clothes. Google remains in control," the Los Angeles Times reports.

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