Google’s Book Project Gets Capitol Hill Attention

Posted January 19, 2010 at 6:29pm

A coalition well-stacked with Google’s corporate enemies is building a case on Capitol Hill this week against an anticipated court decision that would allow the search giant to publish millions of library books on the Internet.

“As people begin to understand the complexities of this settlement and the ramifications that it would have, they are beginning to understand that the issues really deserve broad legislative treatment,— said Peter Brantley, a co-founder of the coalition, the Open Book Alliance. “Increasing access to digital books … could be achieved in a public fashion that would make books commonly available, not just to one private company.—

In addition to library groups, Brantley’s organization includes Google’s high-tech archrivals Microsoft, Yahoo and retailer Amazon.com, whose investment in the popular Kindle digital book platform could be undercut by the likely free offerings of Google.

On Tuesday, Brantley met with House Judiciary Committee staffers on a possible legislative response to an expected ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York next month.

The court on Feb. 18 will decide the fate of a class action lawsuit involving Google and the publishing industry over copyright concerns related to the company’s Books project, an ongoing effort to digitize millions of books. Since its launch in 2004, the project has hit a slew of complicated legal snags involving out-of-print books and “orphan— works, whose ownership is unknown.

“The vast majority of presumptively copyrighted works have no identifiable owner because copyright has become so long, and there’s no formalities attached to it,— Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig said.

To ward off a protracted court battle, Google cut a potential deal with authors and publishers in October 2008, a settlement that now awaits court action and would open up “millions of these books to students and readers across the U.S.,— according to Google’s Web site.

Google also claims that the deal will set up a compensation system to pay publishing companies and authors. The terms of the settlement also include provisions allowing the blind and others with visual impairments to convert the books to audio files or other accessible formats.

“Right now, there are not a lot of distributors of books who are making their products accessible to blind people,— said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, which supports the settlement. “E-books should be inherently accessible to blind people because they’re just computer files, [but] since various distributors have them tied to one device — like the Kindle — we don’t have access to those e-books and that’s a problem.—

“Google hopes to be a major player in the book market and would have content that is accessible to us,— Danielsen added.

A Google spokesman defended the settlement late last week, saying it would create a publishing marketplace. So far, the spokesman said, Google has scanned more than 12 million books and is uncertain who owns the rights to about 1 million.

“Eighty-five percent of the time they can find the rights holders,— said the spokesman, who would discuss the settlement only on background. “The settlement goes a long way towards opening up access to out-of-print books. … It gives rights holders new ways to benefit from their works, which are out of print and not being sold, and it gives users the ability to find books they are looking for which they otherwise would not be able to find.—

Yahoo and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. An outside spokesman for Microsoft, Burson-Marsteller’s Neil Derek Grace, wrote in an e-mail that “Microsoft continues to support a legislative regime that is fair to creators and rights holders, provides a level playing field for those seeking to promote the dissemination of orphan works, and serves the public interest in such dissemination.—

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) last Congress both sponsored legislation addressing “orphan works,— although no bills are currently pending in either chamber.

Allan Adler, an Association of American Publishers lobbyist, said his group is “caught in the crossfire— between Google and its enemies over the proposed library book deal. Adler, whose group is a named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, agreed that the settlement offers Google a plum deal but said there are few other takers for the huge task of digitizing a good portion of the planet’s literary canon.

“Remember what books we’re talking about here — they’re out of print because they didn’t have the kind of life in the economic marketplace to sustain them there,— Adler said. “Under this settlement agreement, yes, Google gets an advantage that is not available to anyone else readily, but because of that advantage we’d be bringing all of these books back online, so that people can have access and use them.—

Adler also criticized Brantley’s Open Book Alliance and its corporate members for trying to stymie the settlement without proposing alternatives.

“If Microsoft and Amazon have their way with respect to this, they’re going to simply deny to the general public access to all of these books,— he said.